Spider Bite

(This column first appeared in the August 4, 1997 Buffalo News.)

   "It felt like something pinched my foot."  So began Linda Kempston's narrative about her harrowing August of 1994.  Paraphrased, here is what followed:

   I was kneeling on the deck behind our Akron home that afternoon.  When I got up I thought I had twisted my ankle, but by evening a red spot appeared where I had felt the pinch.  The pain worsened and I held an ice bag against my foot.  In bed that night I shuddered with chills.

   By morning I couldn't put weight on that left foot but I managed to drive to the hospital.  An x-ray showed no sprain; however, I was running a temperature.  The pain kept increasing and my back began to ache.

   On the third day I had to report for a job physical despite the pain and swelling that had now reached my knee.  As you can well imagine, I didn't pass.  The doctor told me to get immediate help for my "serious infection."

   My sister drove me home but by then my back pain was excruciating and I was drenched in sweat.  Paramedics were called and they rushed me to the hospital.  I lost consciousness as I was wheeled into the Emergency Room.  Doctors told me later that my kidneys had stopped functioning, my blood pressure was almost non-existent and they were not sure that I would make it.  I remained in Critical Care for a week, heavily dosed with antibiotics and in severe pain despite powerful analgesics.

   Until my vital signs were stabilized, no one seemed concerned with the source of my problems.  But on the fourth day a huge blister appeared on the side of my foot.  It burst and the exposed area beneath it appeared eaten away.  (At this point Mrs. Kempston showed me photographs.  They display a rainbow of nauseating colors -- black, yellow, red and green -- over an area of about six square inches.)

   Meanwhile the doctors marked my leg each day to note the advance of the swelling.  It reached my thigh before it finally began to retreat.  Surgeons operated several times to remove dead tissue from my foot and reconstruct it.  I was only permitted to go home after 28 days.  During almost all of that time the pain was punishing.  I still have a blood disorder with the possibility of severe reactions to insect bites or stings in the future.

   No one knows what caused Mrs. Kempston's terrible ordeal, but her symptoms suggest that it was the bite of a brown recluse spider.  The brown recluse is a shy quarter-sized spider with a violin shaped area on the top of its head.  Here in Buffalo we are well outside its normal range but the Kempstons had just returned from an Ohio campsite just within that range.  This spider is known to hide in stored clothing and might have hitchhiked back to New York with them.

   All spiders are poisonous.  Their venom is designed to paralyze and even partly digest insect prey.  But for most species the tiny amount of venom they inject doesn't harm humans.  The major North American exceptions are the black widow and brown recluse spiders.  The black widow's toxin attacks the nervous system but is not tissue killing like that of the brown recluse and the black-footed sac spider, a rather common spider of this area.  (My wife recently found one in our bedroom.)  However, serious reactions like Mrs. Kempston's have not been reported for the sac spider.

   Linda Kempston won't forget her terrifying experience but she refuses to restrict her activities.  I applaud her for her unusual strength of character -- which may well have saved her life.