This is not the black widow that bit me.
The spider that bit me is now spinning webs in the sky. Or wherever dead spiders end up. Unlike dogs, I have a strong suspicion that they do not all go to heaven.
I killed her. I didn’t do it on purpose, but she’s dead. We had a miscommunication about the ownership of a sleeping bag, and it got ugly. First for her, when I rolled over and squished her, and later for me. Before she went, she made sure I wouldn’t enjoy my stay for long. In that last instant of spider life, she bit me. I wouldn’t know that any of this drama had taken place for a couple hours, of course. But I would definitely come to know it. I would come to know it so hard. (This is a long story, so I spared you dashboard readers. Click through to read the gory details)
It had been a nice day. I was about a mile south of Junction, Texas, a one-night campground layover on my way to a Boy Scout backpacking trip through the mountains of west Texas. I was excited to see them, if only to prove to myself that such terrain existed in a state where the top of your driveway might be the highest point for miles. The night was clear and cool, the kind of night that makes you decide not to pitch your tent, so you can be closer to nature. So very close to nature.
Black widow spiders are actually several species, all part of the genus Latrodectus. They are normally pretty timid. If you live in North America, they’re probably in a dark corner under your house right now, not bothering anyone. Comforting thought, eh? They really don’t want to bite you, though. But they will, if they are cornered, or smooshed.
Males are small and brown (you can see a couple in my photo above), and don’t pack much punch. But the females, oof. They are bulbous and black, and each wears a brand in the shape of a crimson hourglass on their belly, a dressing of toxic couture to mask the hurt inside. The most infamous spider on Earth.
About an hour after I fell asleep that night, I woke up with a start. My right arm was numb. No biggie, that happens all the time. I rolled over and waited for blood to flow back into my arm, washing away those prickly pins and needles with a cool wave of feeling. But it didn’t go away. And why could I still move my hand?
I went for a walk to shake out the cobwebs from my tingly appendage. And that’s when the itching started, on the right side of my ribcage. And the burning. And the feeling that there was a needle sticking out of my side. But there was nothing there. Nothing but a tiny red mark. Uh-oh. Something had gotten me.
I roused our chaperones and one of them drove me into Junction to find an emergency room. However, Junction does not have an emergency room. It has what can best be described as an emergency closet. The duty nurse paged the doctor, who arrived a few minutes later looking like he had just rolled either out of a bar or out of bed.
Much like that doc’s appearance, a black widow’s web is rather disheveled (as you can see in my photo above). It’s their trademark, a far cry from the beauty of an orb-weaver. What a mess. But I guess when you’re a bad-ass mofo, you don’t have to clean up your room. If they could carry a wallet, it would look like this.
"Looks like you got bit by sumthin," the doctor said as he examined my side. No shit. Inspection with a magnifying glass and pen light proved inconclusive. Was there one prick or two? Scorpion or spider? He gave me a couple hefty Benadryl and sent me back to camp. The venom had been in my system for three hours.
After being bitten by a whoknowswhat, crawling back into your sleeping bag is literally the last thing you want to do. So I curled up in the front seat of one of our cars to try and catch a bit more sleep. Then came the tingling in my left arm. And then in my abdomen, and then my legs. I was walking through an invisible sandblaster, like there were metallic mosquitoes pricking every inch of my flesh. And then came the first cramp.
Well, this isn’t good.
Despite their name, black widow females likely don’t kill many males in the wild. But that didn’t stop one from trying on me. Her delicate fangs delivered a potent dose of latrotoxin, which immediately went to work on my nervous system.
(Structure of latrotoxin tetramer from this paper)
A latrotoxin molecule is actually four separate proteins arranged in a ring. In the center, there’s a tiny pore, and that’s where the black magic happens. That pore is like a keyhole, and calcium ions are its key.
Coursing through my veins, latrotoxin tetramers made their way to the nerve endings that control my skeletal muscles, and inserted themselves in the membrane there, boring a hole, creating a pore behind enemy lines. Normally, after a motor nerve receives its electrical signal, it opens a series of channels that suck calcium ions into the nerve ending closest to the muscle. That, in turn, causes the nerve to spew out a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which binds to a receptor on the muscle, finally opening another pore, also on the muscle fiber, and letting in sodium ions. That sodium influx, and the voltage pulse that comes with it, is what signals the muscle to contract.
Latrotoxin acts by opening the calcium ion floodgates. Nerves go haywire, releasing acetylcholine nonstop, causing the muscles they control to contract, and contract, and contract. And so it had painfully begun.
Five hours post-bite, we are talking to the grizzly doctor again. He confirms that my symptoms match a black widow bite. “That’s why the Benadryl didn’t help,” he says. Good to know. He informs me that the medical establishment of Junction, Texas can do nothing for me, which was not surprising by this point. I needed to get back to Houston. That meant five hours in the shotgun seat of a 12-passenger van. Off we went.
Imagine wanting nothing more than to just sit still, and being completely unable to do so. Your muscles are spasming every half minute, like a charley horse after soccer practice, only everywhere, all the time. At the same time, an ache had taken over my body. See, latrotoxin also acts on sensory neurons that are controlled by calcium. It felt like I was being hit with a hammer, only the hammer was the exact size and shape as every inch of my skin. I shut my eyes not to rest, but just to quiet one sense I still had control over.
My parents met me at Texas Children’s Hospital, where I was promptly checked in and left to wait in an exam room for a couple more hours while they checked my blood and verified exactly everything that Dr. Junction had already figured out. Fourteen hours had passed.
A very pretty female doctor finally came in to do her doctorly duties, examining, poking, checking breath and respiration. Had I not been in such pain, hormonal teenage me might have blushed, she was so cute. There was nothing they could do. They did have limited supplies of anti-venom, but not only was I not a high-risk patient (like a small child or elderly person), the anti-venom carried risks of its own. It was isolated from horses, and some people’s immune system rejected the shot and the foreign proteins it contained.
Looks like I’ll just have to wait it out. People don’t die from this. It sure felt like I was dying in that moment, though (although I’m not sure one can know what that’s like without actually doing it).
And wait it out I did. I finally passed out from exhaustion a full day after the bite. I woke up the next morning sore, but on the mend. Since then, I have compared the pain to childbirth, amputation without anesthetic, and other overly dramatic things that I probably have no business comparing it to.
Meanwhile, my friends were starting their first day of backpacking. I had beaten them to the pain by a couple days, and saved myself a few blisters. They returned later in the week, and I had the best story of anyone to share. But I had to take their word for it on those Texas mountains.
This tale was inspired by Jackson Landers’ recent piece in The New York Times. It is all true. This happened fifteen years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I still hold a small grudge against spiders.
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