Snake In The Grass

Being bitten by a Viper was the most painful experience of my life.

When the witch doctor says that he’ll see you now, you know you’ve messed up. OK, he was more like village healer/snake specialist, but the fact that you are laying on a woven bamboo mat, 3 hours from the nearest hospital (that you would never go to anyways for fear of coming out worse than you went in) while a “magical” root is being placed on your wound to extract the venom of a recent viper bite, makes the whole experience pretty supernatural and “witchy.”

The viper bit me twice, once above the ankle bone, and once below. The dukun (Balinese Healer) had a way of mapping the veins in my calf and forcing the venom back out the bite holes. It is an ancient practice passed down through generations. Those watching would tell me later that a clear jelly like fluid was oozing out the holes with each calf length stroke.

I am not watching the oozing. The 12 year old me, lying on a dirty bamboo mat is biting a towel as hard as I can to keep from wailing. The pain is unbearable. The trouble with viper venom is that it causes red blood cells to explode, partially pre-digesting your flesh by killing off your cells and making it easier for the snake to stomach you should you be a small vermin. Death in humans usually takes the form of fatally low blood pressure and organ failure.

You don’t feel the effect immediately like a bee sting. You don’t even really feel the bite, which is unsettling in its subtlety.

My bite took exactly two steps to register. Two steps, and my achey ankle tells me the tree root I just stepped on wasn’t a tree root. The light tap I had just felt, like someone brushing a twig against my skin, is registering as not a twig. My mind is racing, saying “Please don’t be a snake.” But, as I turn around in the post-twilight nightscape, I see the shadow a two meter snake slither off the path and into the deeper grass of the rice field. My friend runs up with a flashlight and there they are, two red bulbs of blood about an inch apart. I feel the fear of death and a growing pain in my ankle.

At this point, 60–90 seconds after the bite, the venom has made it impossible to walk normally. I hop back to the beach bungalow losman were we are all staying. The staff at the hotel rapidly assembles a team of mopeds and rush me to get on the back seat. By the time the snake doctor sees me, 30-minutes later, the venom makes each light touch to the skin agonizing. The apparently standard snake treatment feels as if my shin is shattered in 5 places and someone lovingly offers to grind in back and forth for an hour (I broke my ankle years later and the doctor set it before the morphine kicked in, same pain, only the broken ankle took 30 seconds to set and the morphine kicked in right after).

The week following my foot and ankle ballooned three times regular size (I’ll work on finding the picture). Going to the bathroom sent throbbing pain from my knee down through all of the rotten tissue, as if the soupy cellular liquid would burst from the tips of my toes. Rolling over in bed instinctively sent me clutching for my foot as any shift in fluid and weight felt like a sledgehammer to the bone. But a week later I was back to normal, not dead as so many snake tales in my youth had warned. 3-minutes, 30-minutes, or 3 hours and your dead was the common refrain…the bright green snakes in the rice fields were to be avoided at all cost.

The time spent waiting for the healer was the worst. Sebentar is this word in Indonesian that means “A moment.” Not “one” moment though, “A” moment in Bali island time could be 1 minute, 10 minutes, or 3 days. As I laid in the healers living room, a tourniquet just below my knee, my leg propped above my heart to prevent blood flow to the wound, my mother, trying to keep my heart rate down, asking me the plot of every “Archie And Friends” cartoon book I’d ever read, and me wondering which “moment” would be my last, not knowing if Sebentar was in my favor. That was the worst part…well, until the venom massage – that was really the worst part, not high on my recommendation list.

If you like snakes check out this list:

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