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Arachnophobia Halts Provider

The code was running well. When I say “well,” I mean we were able to start two lines, intubate and follow advanced cardiac life support guidelines, but the unresponsive patient was by no means doing well. The crews had rationalized that the nursing home patient had been fortunate enough to have already lived his life well past the double-digit mark before going flat line. The EMS and fire crews were amicable, so they had no worries about egos getting in the way of everyone feeling good about themselves.

It was a going-through-the-motions kind of code. The only sound you could hear was the whining of the bag-valve mask refilling following each squeeze. We were two rounds of Epi away from calling it when a terrifying scream echoed through the dimly lit hallway just outside the patient’s room. I knew that ear-splitting screech anywhere. It was my partner. It was the same blood-curdling screech she made after receiving her first EMS paycheck. Oh, the horror.

Breaking protocol, we stopped CPR and ran for the hallway. With her back flat against the wall, there she stood … on her tippy toes. While one hand attempted to grasp for anything on the bare wall to lift her higher off the ground, the index finger of the opposite hand extended its trembling self downward toward the med kit—the same med kit I had just moments before asked her to retrieve yet another Epi from. She whispered one word, incomprehensible until I looked down to the med kit, where her bulging eyes remained fixed and dilated.

There it was, grotesque in form, hideous to behold, venomous and dangerous to all living creatures (assuming the creature is no bigger than a fly). “A spider?” I silently mouthed back. She shook her head vehemently in pathetic acknowledgement, while I flashed back to prior EMS scenes in which this very same woman had effortlessly taken command of triaging a horrendous five-car pileup, performed a field amputation of an entrapped leg and successfully talked a suicidal patient from jumping off a bridge. OK, so the walking bridge was only five feet above a babbling stream, but you get the idea.

Yet, this itsy, bitsy spider had reduced my partner to helplessness and paralyzing fear never before seen by any of her fellow colleagues. I loved it. Needless to say, she found 134 plastic spiders the next shift strategically located throughout her ambulance.

Apparently arachnophobia (not to be confused with Iraq-nophbia) ranks high in the fear category for American citizens, while a lot of other countries just simply find them delicious. In all my years as a medic, I’ve never treated or de-webbed a patient bitten by a spider. In fact, it’s estimated more than 80% of suspected spider bites in the U.S. aren’t spider bites at all, rather they’re the munching of fleas, lice, mosquitoes and vampires.

Spiders have been getting a bad rap ever since the movie industry realized they could exploit these poor little creatures in horror films. Hornets, ants, wasps and bees are a different story of course. They aren’t loners like spiders. They are gang-like, carry union cards and pack venom that makes Epi-pen manufacturing worthwhile.

There are 10 quintillion insects on Mother Earth. That’s roughly 1.5 billion bugs per person. So, you’re bound to run into a bug with an attitude every once in a while. But spiders for the most part are docile, passive and reclusive—especially the brown recluse type. (A little subarachnid humor there for you.)

Seriously, spiders are anthrophobic (i.e., afraid of people).

They’re more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder secondary to the genuinely terrifying experience of a creature five billion times their size running around screaming like a little girl.

No sexism intended here. Eighty six percent of women say they’re scared of spiders compared to 20% of men. I believe this is just because women are less restrained about expressing their fears. Or, men may not be afraid of spiders because they’re usually packing a 357 magnum for just such occasions.

The truth is, spiders rarely bite humans because they don’t want to waste venom on victims that are too big to eat—unless you’re a hobbit.

My partner eventually got over her fear of spiders when a friend slowly introduced her to their pet tarantula. (Tarantulas live up to 30 years, so she had plenty of time to desensitize). Humor helped take the emotion out of the phobia. By making fun of the spider, it became less threatening, thereby freeing my partner and the rest of us to focus on the most important EMS phobia—emetophobia (i.e., the fear of vomit).

Until next time, be wary of bites that give you an urge to extend your arm while pointing and hyper-extending your wrist in a direction you’d like to move toward. JEMS

This article originally appeared in November 2010 JEMS as “Webs Matter: Not so ‘itsy bitsy.’”

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