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Endless Summer

Endless Summer

On December 14, 1996, I opened an envelope from the University of Queensland with great anticipation. The fact that it was a thick one gave me hope that my application for a PhD scholarship to the Centre for Drug Design and Development (“3D Centre”) had been successful. This turned out to be the case. Elation flowed through my veins like a shot from a drug. It was the purest joy I had ever felt. After jumping through the remaining hoops and obtaining my student visa, I departed on what turned out to be Australia’s national holiday. I was confident this was an auspicious sign for my new life and long-sought-after dream to become a professional venom researcher.
After thirty hours of travel, I arrived a bit wrecked but extremely excited. My initial sight of Australia from the air was of the serpentine Brisbane River twisting its way through the city and entering Moreton Bay with a muddy plume that looked like a flat tornado.
The first thing I noticed was that the Australian peak summer was as hot and humid as a walk-in sauna. Not long after I arrived, it started raining so hard that it was like being hit with a fire hose set on full blast. I figured this would be good snake-catching weather, so I went out cruising that very evening with one of my new housemates. She suggested we hit nearby Mt. Glorious—a truly appropriate name for what turned out to be a stunning rainforest, filled with brightly colored parrots that zipped around from tree to tree like hyper young children, making more racket than a bingo room full of retirees. These were not the sounds of the songbirds of my youth; these were raucous screeches and screams more appropriate to a metal singer than the tricolored elegance flapping before me.
Nightfall was greeted with a crescendo of frog calls of all description that grew in volume until we had to yell to hear each other while wandering around a pond near Jollys Lookout. The first snake I saw was a golden crown snake, its iridescent brown body set off by the namesake colored head—a venomous species I, of course, had never seen. It is a member of the Elapidae snake family which meant it was characterized by hollow, short, stubby fangs set far forward that were linked to a muscular compression system capable of delivering a high-pressure stream of venom; basically the snake equivalent of having a pair of hypodermic syringes tucked away in the head. As I hadn’t yet organized my scientific collecting permits, it was a “looky but no touchy” situation, which left me a bit frustrated, but I got over it once I saw six more that evening. They obviously weren’t in short supply, so I would have ample time to catch and milk some later on. For now, I could just relax and familiarize myself with this gorgeous new venomous playground.
After the first night’s excitement I could not wait to get started on the research at my new university. The next day I made my way over to the St. Lucia campus of the University of Queensland. It was even more beautiful than the pictures had suggested. Bounded by the Brisbane River on three sides, the university lacked distracting traffic noise and hosted diverse wildlife on the native-vegetation-filled campus. Black-headed ibis strode elegantly along, looking like Egyptian hieroglyphics, while bright green water dragons with their paint splatter of white spots looked at me with calm indifference.
My first impression of the 3D Centre was that there were lab toys the likes of which I had never seen. I had no clue what they did, but I was looking forward to finding out how to put them through their paces. The air buzzed and hummed with the feverish activity of many active brains running on caffeine-fuelled hyper-drive. My PhD supervisor, Professor Paul Alewood, was brilliant and congenial. He had a peculiar Jabba the Hut laugh that came out whenever he told an off-color joke, which was just about every other sentence.
We spent the afternoon mapping out the plan of attack for my PhD, the distillation of which could be written on the inside of a matchbook with a crayon: catch a bunch of weird elapid snakes and see what is in their venom. A broad brief that suited me just fine since it gave me a licence to play. I spent that afternoon painfully and patiently filling out the wildlife research permits, which were dreadfully organized and written in impenetrable English liberally spiced with bureaucratic weasel words.
Continuing my exploration of the campus I discovered that it hosted an Olympic-sized swimming pool among various other excellent athletic facilities. This confirmed the stereotype of Australians being sport fanatics. I also eyed off the beach volleyball courts before heading off to the athletics office to enquire about getting onto a swim squad and a beach volleyball team. Both objectives were sorted in short order.
I soon settled into a rhythm of biking to the lab at 4:30 a.m., when the sky was the color of an old bruise. I would take advantage of the early dawn that was the result of Queensland stubbornly refusing to change the clocks to daylight saving time during the summer. I would be showered and hard at work by about 5:15 a.m., giving me nearly four hours before most other people came in. Not only did I count each hour alone as two hours’ worth of productivity, but it also gave me the opportunity to quietly clean up my messy mistakes or crack out a small screwdriver to make some emergency repairs on a vital piece of equipment before anyone could take note. I would then chat with the “late arrivals” over coffee for a half hour before heading off for swim training, lunch, and then volleyball training. I would return to the lab around 4 p.m. to grab a few more quiet hours once the hustle and bustle had died down as the others left at civilized hours. If I was really excited about something, it was not uncommon for me to glance up at the clock to realize it was already past midnight; more than once I left as dawn was suggestively flirting with the darkness.
The combination of extreme ultraviolet light, intellectual stimulation, and lots of sports training had my body firing along like a well-tuned machine. I was happy, energetic, and enthusiastic. I got tired of washing sand out of my hair and having it perpetually wet from swim training, so I decided one day to shave it all off, first with clippers, then a razor. Walking out into the rain that first time was one of the most erotic sensations I’ve experienced. The warm water impacted on nerves that had never been caressed in such a sensual manner. I liked the look and feel so much that I decided to keep it permanently.
Once I had successfully navigated the byzantine maze of the Queensland Parks and Wildlife permit system, I was armed with the snake catcher’s equivalent of being a 007 agent: I was licensed to catch, keep, and use. I set about rampaging through the forests and deserts of Queensland. I could be found out cruising Mt. Glorious most nights, due to its proximity to campus and it being a biodiversity hotspot, either alone or with my mate David Quigley in whatever cheap, beat-up wreck of a car I was driving at the time, or in his much more suitable Rocky four-wheel drive. I was buying cars for a few hundred dollars, doing enough tinkering on them to get them to run, and then going out snake catching in a vehicle totally unsuited for anything outside of a parking lot, let alone steep mountain roads. One night while driving a Mitsubishi Sigma (or the Stigma, as I referred to it), its brakes gave out completely. The pedal was about as useful as male nipples. As it was an automatic, this posed special difficulties. I rammed it into the lowest of the semi-automatic options and pneumatically yanked up the handbrake when I needed to marginally slow down. Somehow I managed to make it home. As it wasn’t worth fixing, I flipped a few hundred more to another dodgy car dealer and had yet another unroadworthy piece of crap that would last about as long as my typical romantic relationship, which was less than the lifespan of a large head of garlic in my refrigerator.
Like a kid in a candy store, it didn’t take me too long to get a cavity; I copped my first snakebite two months after arrival. All snakes have characteristic movement patterns based upon their morphology. But the only way to predict how a new type of snake is going to move is to spend time working with one to get familiar with its particular proclivities. This was a luxury I did not have, since most of the snakes I was targeting were only very rarely kept in captivity, if at all.
One moonless Tuesday night I was out with a few mates at what looked to be a particularly good time for snake hunting. It had been really hot during the day and then a light shower came through. Not enough to cool things down, just enough to get the frogs moving at dusk, which soon brought out the predators. We had seen fourteen snakes already, including the venomous species I was after; these included golden crown snakes, rough-scaled snakes and bandy-bandy snakes. The bandy-bandys were a delight to behold as these gentle, docile snakes did an elaborate raising of the mid-body to present their strongly contrasting black and white rings. Somehow this was supposed to be threatening; I just found it endearing. As the iconic Australian song “Great Southern Land” by Icehouse played on the car stereo, the next snake on the road had none of the clean, crisp, cool coloring of the bandy-bandy. Instead, this snake was a muddy dark brown alternating with dirty cream rings. Only one snake in my book fit this description: Stephens’ banded snake.
The book at hand was conspicuously lacking in detail about venom composition, which, of course, was why this species was a prime target for my PhD research. The lack of information became more significant once I was bitten. The snake had moved left when I expected it to go straight—a mistake on my part that led to twin drops of blood on my right index finger. The venom’s effects were rapid and severe. I instantly had a pounding headache accompanied by a crushing feeling in my chest, like a giant was sitting on it. The world turned and the ground rushed up to meet me. I thought to myself, “Hmm … this is a bit different. Haven’t read about a reaction like this to any snakebite. If I survive this, it would make an excellent PhD topic.” Then, just like a warrior from The Iliad, darkness veiled my eyes.
I was out cold for ten minutes and then I was awake as if a switch had been flipped. I noted with alarm that the two puncture wounds in my thumb had not stopped bleeding. Not a good sign. In order to slow the flow of venom as it was absorbed into the lymphatic system ahead of entering the blood stream through a lymph node in my armpit, we applied a compression bandage and immobilized my arm in a sling. This was followed by a mad dash to the nearest hospital.
The first blood test was taken less than an hour after the bite had occurred, but the results indicated that my blood chemistry was completely disrupted. In the blood of a prey item, the venom would be more concentrated and result in several massive blood clots, causing the prey animal to quickly die of a catastrophic stroke. But in my larger blood volume, the venom had been diluted and instead produced millions of useless tiny blood clots called microthrombi. By themselves the microthrombi were not harmful, but the net result was that I had no raw materials left to make a blood clot if I really needed to. So, I was at great risk of bleeding to death. The venom had consumed all my clotting factors and my blood was like water.
Potentially lethal changes were also occurring to my heart rate and blood pressure. Despite my anxiety and fear, my heart was only beating forty-two times a minute. My blood pressure was 78/26, so low that I was at risk of multiple organ failure occurring at any moment. This freaked me out a bit and then, when I saw that my freaking out did not raise my blood pressure or heart rate, that freaked me out even more. There was something in the venom that was stabilizing me at these extremely low levels. This was a continuation of whatever had rendered me unconscious within two minutes of the bite. I wondered how low these vital indicators had dropped when I was unconscious, since I was now conscious with these extraordinary low values. To distract myself, I thought about how this might benefit a snake when feeding and concluded that it was an excellent way to immobilize a prey animal—knocking it out, thus giving the blood toxins time to form the killer blood clots. Basically, the mice would stroke out while knocked out.
While the resulting effect on my blood pressure and heart rate was potentially lethal, it was manageable with stimulatory drugs. However, I was now at the same risk of bleeding to death as a hemophiliac. A dark tide was slowly spreading under my skin where intravenous needles had been inserted in each arm, as the blood leaked out of me. Bleeding out of one nostril and then the other followed not long after. Then out of each eye, so that it looked like I was crying tears of blood. I could have rung up the lab and said, “I won’t be coming in today—my stigmata are acting up.” This was terrifying in a rather cool way. But once I started bleeding out of my anus, life was decidedly not cool. No matter what the cause, anal bleeding is never cool.
Since this was such a rare snake, and the few bites that had occurred were extremely poorly documented, it meant that the doctors were unaware of the best course of treatment. The snake venom detection kit (SVDK) laboratory test gave a strong positive reaction for tiger snake. This did not mean that I had been bitten by a tiger snake; rather, it was suggesting that the tiger-snake-specific monovalent antivenom might cross-react with the liquid death that was now coursing through my veins. So, we gave it a go with an ampoule. After waiting three hours, retesting showed no effect and so another ampoule was given. By this time, my girlfriend-of-the-moment had curled up in the bed with me to give me comfort. Around 2 a.m. she rolled over, tearing out both IV lines. The jagged holes left behind now started to gush blood at a steady rate. The thick gauze pads placed over them were soaked with blood within minutes. After a while the nurses worked out the metrics of how long it took each of the bleeds to go through a particular thickness of gauze, thus allowing them to balance the dressings on the different bleeds, so that they reached the changing point at the same time. Doing math like this also helped keep my mind off the horror show of the situation I had got myself into.
After waiting another three hours, the retesting again showed no effect, so yet another ampoule was given. By this point I was about to lose my mind from the stress of it all. This was a skull-fuck like no other, knowing that any wound, however tiny, over a long enough period of time could become dangerous. But it was the idea of bleeding into the brain and ending up a vegetable that filled me with the coldest of terrors. By the time three more hours had passed and it was time to retest, I was seriously considering other career options. Studying the flight patterns of some butterfly, perhaps, or something else equally innocuous. But this time, retesting showed a slight effect and so another ampoule was given to speed my recovery. I was in the clear as long as I could keep from having my tubes torn out again or doing anything else that would promote bleeding.
Thirty hours after arrival, I was released from the hospital once my coagulation profiles reached 80 percent of normal and were continuing to rise. After a very long sleep I continued recuperating with some quiet time in the hammock, while being bathed by the warm afternoon sun. However, in the evening I cut my foot on a piece of glass when I walked into the kitchen. The orphan ringtail possum I was raising had knocked a vodka bottle off the fridge top. After cleaning it up, I settled on the couch to watch some cricket. About two hours later I glanced down and noticed a pool of blood on the tile floor. And that none of it had clotted. I immediately went back to the hospital, where a new battery of tests confirmed that my blood was again unable to clot. We concluded that some venom had been trapped in tissue somewhere and then worked its way into circulation once I was out of bed and more active. It was another ampoule of antivenom for me, and more hours waiting on tests and retests. Eventually my blood came back good and I was sent home again.
For once, I did not blaze around at full speed but had a very quiet, contemplative week. I was scared out of my mind by what had transpired. On the other hand, the less emotional and more objective part of my brain viewed all of this with fascination. From a research point of view, this bite had revealed very novel venom effects upon the blood pressure. I had inadvertently become my own breakthrough. After milking a few more Stephens’ banded snakes, I discovered that the component responsible was a modified cardiac hormone that is normally used to regulate blood pressure, with it being released in particularly high levels during heart attacks. This hormone class, called natriuretic peptides, relaxes vascular smooth muscle such as that surrounding the aorta, the main artery leaving the heart, thus causing a beneficial drop in blood pressure. So it was a case of the snakes recruiting something normally useful and turning it into a weapon. My blood destruction had been caused by a mutated form of the ordinary blood-clotting enzyme Factor X. Only it was a thousand times more active than usual.
It turned out that many Australian venomous snakes have these blood pressure toxins in their venoms as part of a chemical arsenal. The Stephens’ banded snake simply has it in extremely high amounts. However, larger snakes, such as taipans, also have natriuretic peptides in their venom, so I focused my efforts on taipans for the simple reason that these snakes gave huge amounts of venom and were also plentiful in captivity. Even though the natriuretic peptides were in lower amounts than in the Stephens’ banded snake, this was more than offset by the larger amounts of venom I could accumulate.
Taipans are best described as ten-foot-long, copper-colored ballistic missiles with inch-long fangs at the end. These iconic snakes are the largest and most infamous of all venomous snakes in Australia, as they have the most dangerous bite of them all. Over the coming months, I successfully milked fifty taipans for their venom. Most of these were captive snakes, which meant that they had zero fear of humans. The implications of a bite were horrifying. In addition to causing bleeding issues even more problematic than that of the Stephens’ banded snakes, their venom also has an extremely potent effect on the nerves, muscles, cardiac system, and pretty much anything else reachable by the bloodstream. The lethal dose of coastal taipan venom for a human is estimated to be 3 milligrams, but venom yields regularly exceed 100 milligrams, and one massive male specimen gave over 700 milligrams in a single milking. The straight fangs grow so long they actually start wearing holes all the way through the bottom jaw from pressing into the floor of the mouth every time the snake closes its mouth. Perhaps this is why they are always so cranky! I milked one by simply pressing the lower jaw on to the milking container with the snake’s mouth closed. The fangs popped out the bottom and liberally ejaculated venom.
Milking these snakes was quite the challenge due to them being lean, strong, and extremely agile. When I would milk a person’s pet snake, they would usually stand way back and watch the show. Wise of them, but of no help to me. These milkings typically occurred in cramped sheds or rooms packed with all sorts of clutter—hardly the ideal scenario when dealing with such psychotic serpents. I had one really close call when one of the snakes launched out of the cage immediately after I opened the lid and left a long scratch along my thumbnail. A fraction of an inch in any direction and I would have been in real trouble. These incredibly intelligent snakes left me a nervous wreck by the time I was done. But I was able to accumulate twenty grams of coastal taipan venom and ten grams of the even more potent inland taipan venom. More than enough to complete my PhD … or to wipe out every single person on campus. I opted for the PhD completion outcome.
About six months after I arrived, my supervisor Paul, as well as Peter Andrews (the director of the 3D Centre) and other senior staff, were lobbying the government for money to fund the Institute for Molecular Bioscience. As part of the schmoozing, they were showing Peter McGauran, the then Federal Minister for Science, around the lab. He was to meet with one of the other PhD students, who was to show him the collection of live funnel-web spiders, the lethal arachnids best known for biting very rich people along the North Shore region of Sydney. I found these spiders to be pretty cool in their own multi-armed alien sort of way. They are so eager to bite that they throw back their legs, arch their glossy black bodies and display their long fangs, each with a drop of venom at the tip from a bit of premature ejacuvenomation. I politely waited until after Minister McGauran had dutifully used a pipette to suck up a small drop of venom from one of the fangs before I called out from the other side of the animal room, “Check this out!” and slid out a six-foot-long indigo colored spotted black snake from its cage. I then asked, “Want to milk it with me?”
As I pinned the snake’s head and got a good grip, Peter Andrews was shooting me death stares that promised my certain doom and deportation should anything go pear-shaped. Minister McGauran did very well with milking his first snake until the very end. The excitement, fear, adrenaline, and a strong snake combined into a perfect storm, and his hand started to shake. Before I could react he had dropped the snake, with its head landing on the crotch of his pants. There was no way I was going to suck the venom from there, so I quickly but lightly grabbed the snake mid-body and teleported it back into its container. All ended well. Minister McGauran showed the venom-filled container off at a political meeting that evening and I wasn’t deported. Word came months later that the funding application was successful and that the Institute for Molecular Bioscience was going to be a reality. While the snake venom milking may not have been the decisive factor, or even a contributing element, I am sure that killing the Federal Minister for Science would not only have destroyed my budding academic career, but would not have done the funding application any favors.
A week after this I was bitten by a close relative of the spotted black snake, the Butler’s snake. I was force-feeding a juvenile that was a fussy eater by gently pushing a euthanized pinkie mouse (a newborn mouse still devoid of hair) down the snake’s throat using the plunger from a 1 cc syringe. All was going well until the snake decided it didn’t want to deep-throat a baby mouse, especially one that it had just met. So, it used its throat muscles to try to expel the mouse at the same time as I started a fresh push. The combined pressure resulted in the plunger penetrating through the soft body of the mouse and out the other side, continuing harmlessly down the snake’s throat. Harmless to the snake, but not to me, since my finger also went down the snake’s throat, resulting in a certain familiar feeling as both fangs pierced my flesh.
While this species was very rare and I was conducting the first analyses of the venom, bites from most species of the same genus were only considered dangerous if the snake was an adult. This was because these snakes had venom that acted relatively weakly on mammals since they mostly fed on reptiles and amphibians, to which the venom was dramatically more toxic. My urine darkened a bit, which was suggestive of some muscle breakdown, and lab tests confirmed this, but the effects did not become severe enough to necessitate using up more of the extremely expensive antivenom. My muscles were rather sore the next day and I tired easily for the next two weeks.
Other than that, the bite was seemingly uneventful—until I noticed something strange. Over the coming days my sense of smell steadily decreased until it was completely gone. While this made snake cage cleaning less revolting and getting DNA samples from road-killed animals less nauseating, it did impact on other areas, such as not knowing if I stank from perspiring in Brisbane’s sweltering humidity. It also made food much less fun than it had been. Eating delicate French cooking was like chewing on recycled cardboard. Only chilli-laden Asian cooking made an impact. My sense of smell started returning over the coming months, but only came back to about 50 percent of pre-bite sensitivity. It also came back warped. Some female perfumes smelled like chemical cleaning products instead of delicate bouquets of aromatic sensuality; some foods smelled like they were dipped in formalin.
My nose soon took another beating. In addition to being on a beach volleyball team and a swim squad, I was also boxing. While I had escaped injury in the previous years of boxing and bouncing, I finally got a significant one. During one sparring session, a gloved right hand snuck snake-like past my left hand defense and smashed my nose with a sickening wet crunch. I sprinted for the locker room to see my nose pressed over to the right side of my face like a Picasso cubist painting. I was a hunchback-level freak show. My first thought was “I’m never going to get laid again,” which gave me the guts to manually wrench it back into position. I pressed home the top part with an audible CLICK! The world dissolved into black cotton candy as I almost passed out from the pain. But the blood was no longer coming out in red contrails, which was a good sign. The next morning I looked like a raccoon from the twin black eyes I was sporting. There was a tiny and permanent inward curvature of the left side of my nose that only my infinite vanity would notice. I decided, however, that boxing was done with me. I would concentrate my athletic endeavours on beach volleyball and swimming; I’d risk tendonitis but not mutilation with those two sports.
Working with such huge quantities of venom in the lab created an unforeseen problem, one with dire long-term implications for my ability to work with venomous snakes. I noticed over time that I would sneeze more frequently and with increasing force whenever I opened a container of dry venom and small particles of venom wafted up into the air currents like dust from a room long unswept. I didn’t think anything of this, since venom proteins are too large to be absorbed into the body. This is why the toothless idiots at carnivals can milk a rattlesnake and drink the venom to show their god-like powers. If these morons had any gum bleeding, the venom would be able to enter their body through those wounds. Otherwise, they could take a bath in it without any ill effects. But I didn’t consider the reaction of my immune system. Over time I developed a severe allergy to the venom. In the lab, this would manifest itself as symptoms similar to those experienced by people with allergies to pollen. It meant working either in the fume hood or wearing eye goggles and a sealed rubber mask with a particulate filter of the same sort I would use while laying down fresh fiberglass on a surfboard.
But these symptoms rang a strident warning bell, because it meant that if I was bitten again, I would almost certainly go into allergic shock from the venom, in the same way that someone who is allergic to bees would react to a sting, or a suitably sensitized child to a peanut. I was not yet done with the research I had set out to do, so I conducted a cost-benefit analysis and decided to keep on going. However, I ensured that I always had injectable adrenalin with me to counteract any shock, and also injectable antihistamine to hopefully prevent shock from starting back up again—a much higher tech version of the snakebite kit I had always had with me as a kid in Florida.
By this time I possessed quite the snake collection, including several specimens of the rare and very beautiful Pilbara death adder, with its alternating burgundy and black banding. One large female was particularly stunning and was easily my favorite snake in the collection. I didn’t even milk her for venom. She was the only snake in the collection that was a true pet. She was fed first, cleaned first, and had the best cage set-up of them all. She would lie immobile in the cage until a defrosted mouse was presented, at which time she would strike with a speed I had never seen in any other snake. It was like quantum physics—she went from point A to point B without existing in between. But if there was no food around, she would not move for days on end. She would not react when my hands, heavily gloved, grasped the water bowl to take it out for cleaning. Because she was so calm, over time, without conscious thought I began to take liberties with her, such as reaching in barehanded to get the water bowl out. This worked fine for a very long time until one day she must have decided my fingers looked like something juicy to eat and she struck: she hit the back of my hand straight on. Rather than retracting, she used her long, mobile fangs to walk across the back of my hand, leaving a trail of six puncture wounds in her wake.
I immediately knew I was in mortal danger. Not just from the venom but also more immediately from the profound allergic shock I could feel coming on. My skin erupted into countless large hives, turning me into one giant itch. I felt like flaying my skin but then I was distracted by trying to vomit and breathe at the same time. My esophagus was being constricted to an ever-decreasing diameter due to the massive amount of fluid that was rapidly accumulating around my neck. This was a result of all the very small blood vessels internally leaking the fluid that transports the red blood cells. My blood pressure crashed like a stone as I desperately cracked open a glass vial of adrenalin, sucked it up into a needle, stabbed myself deep in the shoulder and rapidly pressed the plunger all the way down. This was quickly followed by an ampoule of antihistamine delivered the same way. The adrenalin raised my blood pressure enough that I was able to call out for one of my housemates to give me a ride to the hospital. I was living out in the bush on five acres in an area called Anstead, which meant that by the time the ambulance got there, we could already be well on our way to hospital.
I was shitting myself on the way to the hospital. Not just in the figurative sense, but also literally. My body was desperately trying to expel the allergic death-protein through every orifice. I spewed all over the dashboard, even down into the vents, and left a coffee-colored stain on the seat. It is hard to apologize with vomit bubbles coming out of both nostrils but I gave it a go. Halfway there I could feel myself going into shock again, this time accompanied by an alarming swelling of my face and shaven head. I cracked open another vial of adrenalin, pulled my black T-shirt sleeve up with my teeth and stabbed myself again. I glanced out the car window to see a suburban mother driving a station wagon staring at me in horror as she drove off the road and fishtailed on the gravel. Oh, what she must have thought of this pumpkin-head monstrosity shooting up in a car in the sterile suburb of Kenmore.
Arrival at the hospital was an anticlimax as far as the allergic shock was concerned, as the second shot of antihistamine had effectively prevented my mast cells from uncontrollably releasing more histamine. Block the release of histamine and everything else takes care of itself. Everything, that is, except the venom that was still coursing through my veins. By now it was starting to kick in. Initially, I was just a bit dizzy and uncoordinated. Which was pretty much my default state anyway, being naturally blond, having bad balance from childhood spinal meningitis, and being easily distracted by passing squirrels. But these effects became more and more severe until breathing became a struggle. My diaphragm muscle was being paralyzed by the neurotoxins.
As I became progressively more paralyzed and my breathing became more labored and inefficient, the most delicious sensation crept over me, like a technicolored chemical cloud. Blue gave way to black; my pupils became dilated and fixed. The lights became very bright and the colors very vivid in a way quite like being on psychedelic mushrooms. I was unable to open my eyelids or move my eyes, so my vision was limited to the times the doctor manually opened my eyelids to look at the pupils. The medical staff had no idea I was conscious and could hear everything they were saying. I just had no way of letting them know I was in there.
But I didn’t care. The neurotoxins were now having an extremely potent narcotic effect. Life was beautiful. It was like breathing the most potent dental gas, times a thousand. Once I lost my ability to move at all and was put on artificial respiration, the sensation kicked up another gear and I was floating high above the world without a single care. True, I was locked inside my body, completely cut off from the outside world—the most primordial of fears. Strangely, I did not mind. This was entirely to do with the fact that I was having the most amazing party-for-one inside my immobile shell. Time warped. For aeons I drifted contentedly through the universe, exploring far-off lands and distant galaxies. This was a classic dissociative out-of-body-experience; a psychedelic state of mind that is reached by disconnecting the mind from the body, either by dissociative drugs like ketamine or, as it turns out, the neurotoxicity of certain toxins. Unlike a bad mushroom trip, however, I did not wonder if it would ever end.
Fortunately and unfortunately at the same time, the antivenom did its job and my Rastafarian world faded all too soon back to the much more mundane reality. The days, months, years, and centuries I had been traveling turned out to be contained within the eight hours I was fully paralyzed: a most interesting form of time travel.
This event was an excellent example of the wisdom that “it is the calm snake in the collection you have to watch out for.” One never relaxes around a taipan or a black mamba. But, it is very easy to relax around venomous landmines like Gaboon vipers or death adders. This was combined with the supreme arrogance of a highly testosteroned twenty-something male. The sort that end up as hood ornaments on the karma of life if they were into motorcycles instead of venomous snakes. It makes perfect biological sense that the risk-assessment side of the brain of human males does not start developing fully until testosterone levels start dropping in a male once he reaches his thirties, and continues down from there with variable degrees of drop between individuals. Along with a calming of behavior. But back in the late teens and early twenties, this part of the brain is still in quite an embryonic state because it is okay if most of the males are causing carnage along the way, as each one can impregnate multiple females, such as in a pride of lions. We are still strongly influenced by our inherent animalistic nature, and this includes casual disregard of potential consequences.
Not long after this I heard about a very unusual death adder envenomation that happened to a person in Melbourne, where, in addition to the usual paralysis, the patient had severe damage to his muscles. I tracked down the patient details and gave him a ring. His name was Chris Hay and he had been bitten by his pet death adder, which was of a type that lives exclusively in the large floodplains of the black soil region in the Northern Territory area of Kakadu. He described his breathing getting shallower and shallower with each breath, until he gasped for a breath that simply wasn’t there. Then the blackness set in and he faded away from reality. He could faintly hear voices, but they seemed so far away. While it was a terrifying and very lonely experience, it was strangely relaxing and the clarity in his mind was amazing. Upon awakening, he was shocked to hear three days had passed.
He sent me some of the venom and I conducted preliminary tests. Sure enough, the laboratory findings replicated the clinical effects. This was significant, since such potent action on the muscles was not a feature previously attributed to death adder venoms. Like my experience with the Stephens’ banded snake, it showed that even catastrophic events like snakebites could have beneficial outcomes if all details were correctly documented. The venom caused permanent damage to his kidneys, such that if he became very physically run-down, the occasional squirt of blood would come out when he urinated.
By this point, I had amassed a sufficiently large pile of data, and a thesis of suitable quality could be carved out of it. The testing of the taipan natriuretic peptides had revealed that, consistent with the clinical effects I had experienced, they were more potent and longer-lasting than the ancestral cardiac hormones used to regulate the blood pressure. In addition, some subtle changes in their structure had also guided specificity toward two different receptors. Combined with their very small size, this meant that they had tremendous therapeutic potential. So it was with great satisfaction that we patented them for use in the treatment of congestive heart failure.
This was yet another entry in the long list of therapeutic uses of toxins, the stand-out of which has been the development of the high blood pressure drug Captopril from the venom of the lancehead viper from Brazil. This drug and its derivatives have an annual market of ten billion dollars. It reinforces the value of conservation, for if the habitats are wiped out, the animals will be extinct before we can study them. When people ask me what the best argument is to convince people of the value of conservation, I say that their weakest argument is to talk about how magnificent and wonderful the animals are. The only people who will appreciate that will be the ones who already think that way—it’s very much a case of preaching to the choir. Rather, they should stress the value of conservation through commercialization, pointing out that destroying a stand of forest is no different than nuking mineral deposits. There is no way to predict where the next wonder drug will come from, so we need to conserve all of nature.
While hard at work writing, I took time off to go to a venoms conference that the 3D Centre was hosting on Heron Island. To get there required a boat ride across some very rough seas. On the two-level ferry, I took up residence on the couch inside at the front of the lower level so that I could get a nice view of the approaching oval, sandy island, without getting wet from salt spray. It also had the pleasant bonus of me not being one of the people coated when someone on the top level puked and the in-sweeping wind carried it all over the people below. It is bad enough to be covered with vomit, but even worse when it is someone else’s!
I arrived on the island clean and dry and instantly decided to get wet and dirty. The rising tide was carrying with it extremely large stingrays who glided up from the depths to search the shallow reef flat for crustaceans to feed upon. Sliding otter-like into the warm azure water with my snorkeling gear on, I decided this was not a bad way to end the three and a half eventful years of my PhD studies.

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