3:45pm

Sat September 21, 2013
Science

Black Widow Spider Fan Gets Dangerously Close To His Subject

Originally published on Sat September 21, 2013 6:07 pm

The first time Jackson Landers spotted a black widow spider on his front porch, he was transfixed. The nature writer grew curious about the poisonous arachnids and even kept one as a pet in a jar for months.

"When you're confronted by this deadly, venomous thing day after day, you can't help but become interested in it," Landers tells NPR's Arun Rath.

One day, he got bit.

Landers, who wrote about his experience in the New York Times, says he really should have known better. He'd been eliminating the spiders on his front porch for weeks and knew the places they liked to burrow — like shoes.

One winter day, he decided to go fishing. He grabbed a pair of water shoes that had been sitting on his front porch, drove out to the fishing spot and put them on. A few steps later, he felt a stinging sensation in his foot.

"At first, I thought maybe it was I had a thorn or something in the shoe," he says. "And then, it got worse. Then it felt like an insect bite, felt like a bee sting or something." When he took the shoe off, he saw two tiny little pin-pricks in his foot — and the squished remains of a black widow spider inside his shoe.

He settled into denial about what was happening, he says. Concerned that he might pass out if pain kicked in while he was on the road, he waited to see how the symptoms progressed. He went on fishing and caught three catfish.

It was too ridiculous a concept, Landers thought to himself, that a nature writer — who is constantly putting himself in dangerous situations — would fall prey to the same creature he'd been observing at his desk week after week.

"I had been posting photos of black widows on Facebook for months and had been reading about black widow bites and the effects of the venom. Of all the millions of people in the U.S. who are around black widows every day and don't get hurt," he says. "What are the odds that I would get bitten? It just seemed like something out of a movie."

Based on his research, Landers knew that, as a healthy individual, it was very unlikely that he would die from the bite. The pain continued to get worse, however. Black widow venom is a neurotoxin that causes muscle spasms and contractions.

"I felt this warmth in my abdomen, and then the warmth turned into a tightness. And then the tightness turned into pain, and it was like being punched in the stomach," he recalls.

At that point, Landers knew he had to get home while he was still able to drive.

His mother met him there and drove him to the hospital. "By the time I got into the parking lot in the ER," he says, the pain "was like a vice grabbing my abdomen and squeezing."

Word spread quickly around the hospital about the black widow bite patient in the emergency room — a rare event. A steady cycle of residents and medical students poured through the ER to gawk at him.

Coincidentally, the hospital was doing a study with an experimental antivenin. It had only previously been tested on three people, and, as a toxicologist explained, two of those patients may have gotten the placebo instead. Would Landers like to be the fourth person to join the study?

He decided to take the risk. When they injected the substance into his I.V., he knew it was no placebo.

"It was this incredible, magical warmth that spread through my arm. I could feel it spreading through my arm and my chest," Landers says. "And it was a wave of relief as pain was erased."

Within 10 minutes, he was discharged.

About a month ago, Landers moved out of the spider-ridden house. Still, he says, whenever he sees a messy widow web close to the ground, he can't help but stop and stare at it.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Nature writer Jackson Landers takes a lot of risks in the wild. He's ended up in the emergency room a bunch of times. Most recently, he found himself in the hospital after a run-in with a black widow spider living on his front porch.

JACKSON LANDERS: When I finally got bitten, I really should've known better. I knew that they were there on that front porch, and I had left a pair of water shoes, like aqua socks on the front porch. I'd been writing all day, and I decided to go catch dinner. And so I grabbed the shoes and a cast net and some - a fishing pole. And I drove about five miles to the fishing spot, got out of the car, and I put the shoes on. I took a few steps, and I felt a stinging sensation.

And at first, I thought maybe it was - I had a thorn or something in the shoe. And then it got worse. Then it felt like an insect bite. It felt like a bee sting or something. I took the shoe off. I saw two tiny little pinpricks, and I knew it wasn't a bee sting. It was - something had bitten me. I was sort of in denial about what was happening. I walked down to the water, and I went fishing. And I caught three catfish. And as I was fishing, the pain got worse and worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANDERS: I felt this warmth in my abdomen, and the warmth turned into a tightness. And then the tightness turned into pain, and it was like being punched in the stomach. And that was when I knew that I had to get out of there while I was still able to drive. The venom is a - it's a neurotoxin. It causes muscle spasms and contractions. And by the time I got into the parking lot in the ER, it was like a vise grabbing my abdomen.

This doctor, this toxicologist sat down and talked to me for a while, and he said, you know, listen, we're doing this study with an experimental antivenin. Would you be willing to test it? And I said, what's your track record? He said, well, you'd be the fourth person to volunteer. I said, what happened with the last ones? He said, well, I think two of them got the placebo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANDERS: When they finally put this substance into my IV, there were, I think, 14 or 15 people in the room. It was this moment of incredible tension. And I felt something. It was almost a high. It was this incredible, magical warmth that spread through my arm. And I could feel it spreading, you know, through my arm and through my chest. And it was a wave of relief as pain was erased literally with every heartbeat pushing a little bit farther. And within 10 minutes, I was completely recovered. I felt fine.

And they were able to discharge me just a few hours later. So it was the first time they'd seen a black widow bite that didn't need to be admitted. I was discharged at 3 a.m., and I went home, and I collapsed into bed. And I woke up at some point the next day and went downstairs to make a cup of coffee. And I saw a spider crawling on the floor. And right there was a male black widow. And I took a few pictures of it, and then that guy had to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Jackson Landers has moved out of the spider-infested house, but he says whenever he sees a messy web close to the ground, he can't help but stop and stare.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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