Another brush with fate

In which I discover a susceptibility to bee stings and get a chance to manage it.

It’s Friday, June 1, 2001. I was driving to Bendigo to visit on business. I’d already stopped once to get a coffee on the outskirts of the city, which did its legendary thing and demanded a trip to a “comfort station” about 20kms from Bendigo proper.

Having availed myself of the facilities, I walked back to the car, noticing an untied shoelace on the way. I leant on the door sill to tie up the shoelace, and straightened up. An excited buzzing noise greeted the movement, and I froze – feeling movement on the back of my neck.

I did nothing – yet the buzzing intensified. Then came the sting. That pissed me off, because last time I was stung (when I was about 10) my foot swelled a little – getting hit in the neck might give me some grief Saturday. I watched the bee circle away to the ground – probably equally pissed off, and doomed having left its barbed sting in my neck. Annoyed, I figured I’d get some ice on it in Bendigo.

I started the car, drove off, and checked the time; habit. It was 11:36AM. I drove about sixty seconds further down the road to the edge of town when I realised there was a really nasty taste in my mouth – a dryness and a sour tone – and my tongue felt BIG. My toes were tingling, so were my fingers, and as I took my left hand off the wheel to flex it I saw some red splotches on it.

I did a first aid course eighteen months ago. I figured it was time for some first aid.

I turned the car around. I drove back into the heart of Axedale – which is not a big town at all. Didn’t spot a doctor, but my breathing was now getting difficult – I did another U-turn, and drove to the police station.

11:38AM.

Exited the car; phone, keys. Went to the door, knocked, no answer.

Knocked again, no answer.

I felt the onset of panic; the taste was no better, my breath was getting shorter, and I really wasn’t feeling well; the body intrinsically knows when it is threatened, and it had run a large flag up the flagpole with “Threat” written on it. Whatever the bee sting had done, it had also pushed my body’s button for “Asthma”, and years of practice have taught me that panic doesn’t help asthma. Remaining calm is paramount.

Calmly, then, I rang the number for the police listed on the sign in front of me. I can still read the number – this is a good sign, tiredness or intoxication sometimes affect things a little.

The phone has no network signal, and beeps away cheerily.

With some dread, and knowing the result, I dial “000”. Same result.

I could hear myself struggling to breathe, and was nearly overcome by the desire to take my shoes off and scratch my seemingly swollen feet. Some of my calm deserted me. Whatever it is in my system, it was FAST and it was EFFECTIVE.

Perhaps stupidly, I forget the car phone kit, usually good for extra range – and indeed, the silent phone I keep in my briefcase which operates on a far better network for country travel.

However, next to the “threat” flag is now another one labelled “urgent”; and someone was rapidly unfurling the one labelled “panic now”.

11:39AM.

There are no humans to be seen anywhere. But back towards the public toilets is a hall, perhaps a kindergarten, where I thought I heard kiddie’s voices earlier.

Pretending to be calm, I walk slowly and in some haste the 50m across the park to the hall; feeling a little like the walk home from the Adelaide Oval hill after a full day of cheer.

Knock, no answer.
Rattle the doors, no answer.

The pins and needles have spread to my face; my cheeks and tongue feel numb. I am no longer calm, or in control; I desperately crave the company of another human being, preferably one with some first-aid knowledge.

The takeaway is only 40m away, across the road. There will definitely be someone there. I stumble to the road, and pause, leaning on a post that is ill-suited to the purpose but very convenient.

Look left.
Look right.
Look left again.

There’s nothing coming, which is almost sad; waving down a car might save me a few metres of stumbling.

I set off, straight across the road. Halfway, good…

About three quarters of the way across the road, my legs stopped working properly. I told them to walk forward, but they would not.
Could not.
Did not.
They were busy doing their own thing, in a rubbery sort of fashion.

With sinking recognition, I realised that this failing coincided with my ability to keep my eyes open, and think.

Having never doubted I would get help – having decided to do so – all I felt was sorrow.

What a dumbass way to die.

Someone is patting my cheek. “You OK mate? You OK?” I hear.

Man, what a stupid question.

I can’t breathe, I’m too tired to open my eyes, I’m sweating by the gallon, and lying in the middle of a country road in an expensive and now ruined suit.

But I am aware again. And I am breathing, although every intake is an exercise in discipline and effort. Asthma was never this bad.

Some good Samaritans moved me to the side of the road and called an ambulance. Someone knew the coma position, and placed me in it; this was bad, because it made breathing more difficult, but good, because seemingly they knew what they were doing. I went with it. I could hear, but it was too hard to do things like communicate.

The ten minutes that the ambulance took to drive the 21kms from Bendigo was an eternity, and I guess I kept drifting in and out of consciousness; it’s not clear at all. Someone did offer a Ventolin puffer; I assume I asked for it. I had a go at it, but it didn’t help. Someone took my car key from my hand, also; I didn’t want to let them have it, but I wasn’t in any shape to argue.

Never has an ambulance siren sounded so sweet.

The paramedics arrived, gave me a fat hypodermic filled with adrenaline and an oxygen mask. They waited for things to settle down a little; and from the needle, I had the feeling that things would improve. Eventually, they drove me to hospital. I think I threw up, unprompted, in the ambulance, in some sort of bizarre gratitude for services rendered.

The afternoon is a haze of hypodermics (which I hate), electronic monitors, oxygen and sleep. They shaved bits of my chest to attach electrodes, and left a cuff attached to manage my low blood pressure. Imagine my joy when they woke me up to ask when I last had a tetanus shot – and then gave me a booster for the scrapes and abrasions I collected when I fell.

Once, on awakening, it took me a few seconds to work out where I was; two friends swam into focus, smiling and caring. It was a rich feeling indeed. I vaguely remember my first appointment came to visit, too; business ain’t all business some days.

An overnight stay was probable, but in the evening, I was released into the care of a doctor friend (also a skydiver) who works in the Bendigo hospital. I slept about ten hours that night, eleven the next, and remained groggy for the next few days.

I now have to carry a single-shot Adrenaline syringe (EpiPen) around with me, and will live in terror of bees for the rest of my life. The reaction should I get stung again will probably be even quicker. It has a evil partner in my occasional asthma, and the reaction itself (“Anaphylactic Shock”) kills within the hour.

I’m a bit grateful to the people of Axedale, and I’m a lucky boy. It’s a bizarre world we live in.

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