Performance of a lifetime

James was not interested in discussing the biological differences between the two species. He was more keen to learn about the relative effects of their bites. I got Tweedie’s book out again. As regards the python it was easy. A python kills its prey by constriction; it does not inject venom. The only very slight danger lay in the wound going septic. All that was needed was to clean up the cut with some iodine and James would be as right as rain.

“And if it was a hamadryad?” James enquired rather tremulously.

“Let me read it to you,” I said. “Here we are. This is really interesting stuff, James. ‘The hamadryad is by far the largest venomous snake in the world and is known to exceed 18 feet in length. Its bite is likely to be rapidly fatal, within half an hour or so, owing to the great volume of venom that is injected.’ If you are right, and it was a hamadryad bite, you will be dead in less than 30 minutes from now.”

“Is there nothing we can do?” asked James faintly. “A tourniquet will do no good,” I replied. “If it was a hamadryad, the poison by now will have spread through your system.”

We were presented with an interesting dilemma, I suggested. There was no one in the house apart from James and myself. Kong Miew was down in Klagan playing mahjong with his friends. Mr Mathen, our new medical orderly, (or ‘Dresser’ as he was usually called.) was up at Ulu Village. It would take me over half an hour with the track in its present muddy state to go there and to come back with him.

Even if Mathen had any suitable antidote, which I was fairly sure he did not, James would, if the snake was a hamadryad, be dead before our return. If it was a python bite, there was no problem and the dresser would be of little assistance.

It seemed to me, I suggested, that if James was to die in unspeakable agonies in the next 30 minutes or so, it might be better if I stayed, so that he had a bit of company. James rather thoughtfully agreed. He expressed some interest in the symptoms which would indicate if he had been bitten by a hamadryad.

I consulted my copy of the Ship Captain’s Guide to Medicine. To my surprise, it actually had a section on snake bites, although unfortunately they said nothing specific about king cobras.

‘The most common symptom in snake bite is fright and fear of sudden death,’ it said. This symptom was certainly in evidence in the case of James. ‘Sucking the venom out is not generally recommended,’ it went on. That was good news. The idea of sucking vigorously on James Lloreno’s ankle did not commend itself to me. ‘Seek Radio Medical advice, giving if possible a description of the snake,’ it continued. That advice was not much help in the middle of the Borneo jungle.

I resorted to Tweedie again: ‘Elapid venom acts mainly as a neurotoxin, that is to say it attacks the nerve centres and causes paralysis. When its action is fatal, this is due to paralysis of the respiratory system, so that the victim dies of asphyxia.’


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