Physiologically, people are essentially the same no matter where you go. Yet, when I first arrived in Guyana, I was surprised at how quickly death came for many. Infections, head injuries, road accidents, malaria…they all take their toll. There is no fanfare, drama, or ceremony. The body is covered and taken away and another patient placed in the bed. Relatives grieve, but they don't seem surprised. It is as if the boundaries between life and death are much narrower. Life seems much more fragile.
So used to medical technology and medications, the gulf between the living and dead seems large from an American viewpoint. We take for granted the public safety campaigns that protect the majority of our children from threats ranging from lead poisoning to traffic hazards. Things we assume are intrinsic knowledge are often due to the foresight and hard work of others. Critical care units, advanced chemotherapy drugs, nearly unlimited blood supplies, dialysis, we could not imagine not having them at our disposal if ever needed. Yet, much of the world has no access to these modalities. Often, in remote villages, people have access only to the most basic of medicines while their contact with nature puts them at increased risk for injury and disease.
In my short time in Guyana I have seen several people die from snakebites, something I had never before witnessed. Most of them come from the remote interior region. They call the deadly snake Labaria, we know it as the Fer-de-lance. It is well known in Guyana and feared by most people, including myself. Although effective antivenin for the snakebite is made, it is not always effective or available at the public hospital. Recently, a young boy came into the hospital complaining of bleeding. Any place on his body that had a small scrape started to ooze blood. Nurses had to refrain from drawing blood as it took hours to stop the bleeding from the puncture. Even his gums were bleeding. He told me that he was stung by a worm, a black hairy worm, that he touched by accident.
He showed me little red spots on his hand that had mostly faded from view, spots he claimed were caused by touching the worm. The physicians, myself included, all assumed it was a baby Labaria bite, since he came from the interior where the bites are common. The boy insisted, ”It was a worm.” Once admitted, they treated the boy with plasma and vitamin K in an effort to stem the bleeding. A pathologist, interested in the case, did some research. Sure enough, there is a caterpillar, mostly found in Brazil, that is known to have one of the most potent toxins known to man. Simply brushing against the caterpillar is enough to cause bleeding and death. When I questioned the boy’s mother, she recalled a neighbor that died of something similar the previous year after touching an insect. Being rare in Guyana, and being present for only three months per year in caterpillar form before it turns into a moth, most people are not aware to be cautious of the deadly caterpillar. It lurks, unassuming, on a tree branch.
The boy was given fifteen units of fresh frozen plasma (at my last count) and some vitamin K, which eventually stopped the bleeding. Thanks to an interested pathologist, aggressive care, and a good dose of luck, the boy was saved. Living in a place where the odds can be stacked against you, something so beautiful as a caterpillar can be deadly.