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On Being Stung

May 12, 2008

In the year 1918, ninety years ago, a group of illegal aliens entered this country. They were stowaways on a ship arriving from South America. They entered unnoticed through the port of Mobile, Alabama. These immigrants soon became migrants, spreading throughout the South. They were prolific lot, producing many offspring. Moving North and East and West, they eventually reached South Carolina.

Last week, I encountered these aliens while I was in my garden. As I was planting an aster, I disturbed a colony of these pesky intruders. Immediately my left arm was covered with a swarm of Solenopsis invicta, black fire ants.

Fire ants are nasty little critters. They lock their jaws into your flesh and inject venom with the other end, biting and stinging simultaneously.

The United States Army recommends bleach as first aid. I keep a bottle in my tool shed. I poured Clorox on both arms, waited a few minutes, and washed it off with cool water. I took Benadryl to try to help with the itching. This week, I have used a lot of cortisone cream.

As a boy, I got stung ten or twelve times every summer. A sting was an occupational hazard when cutting the grass, hiking, camping, and fishing. My grandfather had a remedy for stings. He would bite the end off his cigar, chew it up, and slather tobacco juice on the wound.

Over time, I have developed an allergy to stinging insects. Now I carry a sting kit that includes Benadryl and a hypodermic of epinephrine, a form of adrenaline. The kit also contains a shaker of meat tenderizer. The powdered tenderizer neutralizes the venom of a stinging insect by breaking down the protein.

Insect stings can be deadly. More people die in the United States every year from insect stings than from poisonous snake bites or from shark attacks. An allergy to stinging insects keeps you on your toes. A general rule is to wear long sleeves and use insect repellent.

Several years ago I traveled with a group of twenty-three men to raft down the Nolichucky River. As I stepped out of the van at the outfitter in Erwin, Tennessee, a yellow jacket stung me on the leg. One of the men had wad of chewing tobacco. He applied the familiar poultice. It didn’t help at all.

I was experiencing my first severe allergic reaction. I turned fiery red all over. Knots developed on the back of my head and neck. My breathing became labored. There in the remote Blue Ridge, by a mountain river, I was in trouble!

Fortunately, numbered among the twenty-three men were my family doctor, a cardiologist, an anesthesiologist, and two pharmaceutical representatives. Before I could turn around, they had given me Benadryl. The cardiologist, family physician, and the anesthesiologist all recognized that I was having a severe anaphylactic reaction.

The three physicians drove me in a four-wheel drive vehicle along a rugged logging road over a mountain to a drugstore in Erwin. We were a motley crew, dressed as we were for rafting. When my physician demanded the appropriate medications, I am sure the pharmacist thought it was a holdup. My family doctor ordered cortisone, epinephrine, and two hypodermic needles. The pharmacist blinked at him until the doctor pulled out his wallet and presented his credentials. The cardiologist monitored my pulse; the anesthesiologist my breathing. Spread out on the drugstore floor, I was given a shot of cortisone in one arm and a shot adrenaline in the other. Soon, I was just fine.

Chip, the anesthesiologist, told me how relieved he was when he saw that I was recovering.

“We had drawn straws to see who might have to give you mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I got the short straw.”

By the time we made our way back to the river, I was revved up. All three doctors jumped in the raft with me. I don’t believe they paddled much at all. I was so pumped up on adrenaline, I paddled nonstop all day long. I had so much cortisone in me that I never felt sore.

Chip, the anesthesiologist, was my fishing buddy. Three years after our experience on the Nolichucky River, we were driving in his old Jeep on a back road in North Carolina, headed to a trout stream that held great promise. As we drove through the countryside, an insect flew into the open window. It looked like a yellow jacket on steroids. It was the largest stinging insect I have ever seen. It was very long, with distinctive black and yellow markings on the abdomen. Though I didn’t know what it was, I did know that it was not a good traveling companion. It lit on the dashboard in front of me.

Chip pulled the Jeep over to the side of the road and stopped. He reached out his hand and grabbed that insect. It immediately stung him. He threw the critter out the window. He scraped the sting with his pocketknife, put some ointment on it, and then took some Benadryl.

“Chip, why did you do that?” I asked.

“I barely avoided giving you mouth to mouth resuscitation three years ago. I didn’t want to put myself in that situation again. Besides, I want to go trout fishing. If you get stung, it’s a big deal. If I get stung, we can still fish.”

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, May 2008

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