Standard Deviation: Bess Stillman & Brendan Bane

In this week's episode, we bring you stories of unusual hobbies!

Part 1: Late one night in the ER, doctor Bess Stillman treats a patient with an interesting dilemma.

Bess Stillman is an emergency physician and writer living in NYC. She has appeared on The Moth Radio Hour. Find her at http://www.bessstillman.com.

Part 2: As a teenager, science writer Brendan Bane becomes obsessed with collecting poisonous pets.

Brendan Bane is a freelance science communicator and recent graduate of the UC Santa Cruz Science Communication Program. His interest in biology blossomed when he first laid his eyes upon a giant, hairy tarantula. He later followed his passion to the cloud forests of Costa Rica, where he studied how tarantulas communicate their romantic intentions. (Basically, they twerk). Though he loved tromping through forests and spying on spiders in their roadside burrows, his greatest thrill did not come from the field or laboratory. Instead, he was happiest onstage, bringing audiences face to fang with spiders through visual storytelling. Now, through science reporting, he immerses readers in the lives of all flora and fauna, whether wondrous or weird.

 

Episode Transcript

Part 1: Bess Stillman

It’s 3 a.m. during a Saturday overnight shift in the ER when a patient comes in with a chief complaint of rectal pain.  And because I’m the overnight physician, I know this is going to be a pain in my butt too because nobody comes to the ER at this hour with that complaint if it’s something nice and normal, like hemorrhoids. 

The good news is that I have a medical student working with me that night.  He has come all the way from a medical school in Kansas because, as he tells me, there is nowhere like New York City to do your emergency medicine clerkship.  I mean, just the cross-section of humanity--there's the citizens and the immigrants and the haves and the have-nots, there's the gunshots and there's the stab wounds and there's the heart attacks and the strokes and the sane, the not sane, and the criminally insane.  You guys have everything.  And what the stress must be doing to the inside of eight million bodies.  They're all going to come to the door and I’m going to learn from them.  So yeah, he's a little intense. 

And when he looks at me, I can’t tell if he wants to wear my skin or absorb my knowledge.  But he is enthusiastic, which means that all of the things that I hated doing as a student and that I still hate doing, I get to pawn off on him as long as I frame it as a learning experience. 

Don’t judge me.  Judge the system. 

So I send him in to see this guy.  He comes back out and my student presents to me, “The patient is a forty-five-year-old man who presents with a chief complaint of rectal pain.  It started three hours ago while sitting in his favorite chair doing a crossword puzzle in purple ink, his favorite color.  It’s a seven out of ten on a pain scale.  It’s sharp, non-radiating, and not associated with vomiting or diarrhea. 

So then I go in to see the patient and I get the exact same story.  I mean, down to the detail of the purple ink.  And so now I know something’s up, because nobody tells the same story twice unless they've practiced it. 

So I go back to my student and I say, “Okay.  Why don’t you tell me what you think is wrong with this guy?” 

So, very excitedly, he says, “Well, it could be cholecystitis, cholelithiasis, sigmoid volvulus, cecal volvulus.  Oh, appendicitis, a kidney stone.” 

“Okay,” I say. “Maybe.  I think he has something up his butt.” 

My student turns red.  “No.  No way.  I checked.”  Which is actually the one thing you are never supposed to do.  I mean, just like you wouldn’t stick your finger in a hole on the ground just in case a small animal comes up and bites it off, you never put your hands anywhere inside a patient where you think something is hiding. 

I've found needles, I've found sharp objects, things that people have stuck up there to hide from the police or to purposefully hurt you with. 

So now my student is just staring at his hands, like searching for imaginary damage.  He looks traumatized.  And I say, “It’s okay, it’s okay.  Just don’t do it again.  And why don’t we get this guy in x-ray.” 

So, by now, word has gotten out that there's a Code Brown in the ER, which is exactly what it sounds like.  So the radiology suite is just packed with doctors and nurses and techs all just staring at this large monitor where the images are going to show up. 

And we look like a bunch of curious owls.  We’re just kind of… I mean, there's something up there, but we can’t really tell what it is.  I flip the image a hundred and eighty degrees and there.  I see it. 

It’s a little man. 

At least I think it’s a little man.  There's this really large bulbous head, these two skinny arms, two skinny legs.  If this is Ken, he's strayed so far from Barbie. 

So I ask my student, “Why don’t you point out what you see?” because I really want to be a good teacher in this moment.  I mean, he has come so far to learn from me, but I know that I’m not really teaching him anything about how to read an x-ray.  I am teaching him how to lose faith in humanity, which, to be fair, is exactly the kind of lesson you would come to New York City to learn. 

So, to try to make it up to him, I ask if he would like to do the honors and remove the object himself. 

He replies, you know, he has just decided to become a radiologist so that he never has to touch a patient again.  This seems fair. 

So I go back to the patient’s room.  “Sir, anything you forgot to tell us?” 

“No,” he says.  

“I mean anything.  Anything at all.” 

“No.”  God, I love how committed he is to this story. 

So I go along with it and I say, “Well, this may come as a shock to you, but there appears to be a tiny man in your bottom.” 

[Gasps] He says--I’m actually talking, like, the pearl clasp--“Do you know how this must have happened?”  Oh, tell me.  Please, tell me.

“Well, my brother and his kid are staying with me.  They're visiting from out of town.  And you know how kids are, he leaves his toys just everywhere, just like Hot Wheels and things that you can slide on.  Well, you know, last night I took a late night shower after they went to bed.  So I walked back to my room wearing just a little towel and I slipped on something and, bam, I hit the ground so hard.  That must have been when.” 

“Yeah,” I say, “that must have been when…  How about we get that out of there for you?”

“Where do I sign?” he says.  And he actually reaches behind him and he pulls his purple pen right out of his backpack. 

I will spare you the gory details, but I will tell you that it was a breach birth.  The gentleman came out feet first.  And when he did, we saw that it wasn’t just a man.  It was a spaceman.  It was Buzz Lightyear. 

The nurse I’m working with comes up behind me holding a biohazard baggie and she opens it and whispers in my ear, [in song] “You've got a friend in me.” 

I drop Buzz into the bag and I shut it and I just start taking off across the ER and my student trails me and goes, “Where are we going?” and I so badly want to say, “To infinity and beyond!”

But I don’t.  Because really we’re just going to the locker room, where we actually keep a bucket in a locker that is filled with things we have pulled out of people that week.  Right now, there are two Hot Wheels, a headless Barbie, and a crack pipe. 

So I drop Buzz into the bucket and I look at the clock and I see that it’s only 3 a.m.  I mean, the night is still young.  East Village is just getting started.  So I wonder aloud, “What else do you think we’re going to pull out of someone tonight?” 

And my student looks at me with the full realization that he is not in Kansas anymore.  He looks at me with this mixture of disgust and despair and says, “What do you mean, tonight?” 

Thank you.

Part 2: Brendan Bane

I don't know if anybody noticed but I saw this article circulating a few weeks back about this twenty-one-year-old guy from Wisconsin that was in an accident.  He nearly died.  He didn’t crash his car.  He wasn’t hurt at work.  He was bitten, by his pet king cobra that he kept in his apartment. 

Now, every few months I read about people like this, these young guys that keep these dangerous snakes in their apartment, sometimes in their bedroom.  They're bitten.  They nearly die.  And every time I finish reading those articles I always think, Fuck, that could’ve been me. 

I’m going to tell you guys the story about a hobby I used to have.  But, in order to tell that story, I’ve got to go way back to when I was first inspired to pursue science. 

Now, I've noticed that science journalists, scientists are often… they can tie their inspiration to pursue their specific field back to a moment.  Maybe they played around in tide pools when they were a kid.  Maybe they met an influential researcher.  For me, I could tie my moment back to a specific animal. 

When I was in kindergarten my principal had a pet tarantula that she kept in her office.  Ever since I was tall enough to stand on my tiptoes I would do that and peer through the foggy glass of this thing’s terrarium and stare for hours.  I was totally obsessed.  And that single spider sparked my entire interest in biology. 

That interest soon bloomed and I became obsessed with scorpions, with lobsters, with snakes, with spiders and so on.  I even subscribed to this monthly reptile magazine that had articles on reptile husbandry and whatnot.  And every couple of years they devoted this issue exclusively to keeping the most unforgiving reptiles of all, venomous snakes.  That’s when my obsession with venomous snakes really started and when I started to develop my aspirations to one day have my own venomous snakes. 

I know that sounds irrational and it is.  But I think if anybody were to be able to understand that it would be scientists, because in scientific circles there are always people, as Shane mentioned, there are moss people, dolphin people, virus people and I’m one of the venomous snake people. 

For me, I think the thing about venomous snakes that really got me was that these animals are truly impressive.  I mean, just think about the myriad ways they can undo our bodies.  They can paralyze our nervous systems, they can punch holes through our red blood cells, they can turn our healthy tissue into rotting, oozing flesh.  They're like dangerous little miracles. 

But the thing is my dreams of having these dangerous little miracles for myself were not to be.  I was born here in California, and in California keeping foreign venomous snakes in your home is totally illegal.  So, hearing that as a kid, my dreams were kind of crushed -- until I had my very first job. 

Now, most first jobs entail flipping burgers or maybe delivering pizzas.  Mine was cleaning up snake shit.  I worked at a pet reptile store.  I don't know if anyone has seen what a ten-foot Burmese python can turn an adult rabbit into, but it’s fucking gross and cool. 

But at the store I was totally excited and happy despite all the snake shit.  There, I was surrounded by my fellow people, people who shared my interests, my obsessions, even people who were obsessed as much as I was with venomous snakes, even people who kept them illegally.  That’s when it started to click.  I realized if they could do it, then I could do it. 

My connection was a man named Richard.  He was the store manager.  He was this tall forty-something-year-old guy who knew people in the exotic animal trade.  So he had transitioned from the seedy underworld of exotic aquarium fish to selling snakes and lizards from across the carpet barn. 

So I asked Richard to help me find a venomous snake, and I was surprised when the call came just a few days later.  A woman was going to come into the store to sell her own venomous snakes.  Richard said that it would happen in just a few days and so I counted the days. 

I will never forget the day that they came.  I remember I was looking through the storefront glass.  There were lizards and snakes painted in puff paint across the window panes and, through that glass, I saw a dusty old SUV pull up.  A woman stepped out of the SUV and started pulling terrariums out of the trunk.  She was soon joined by her thirteen-year-old son.  Her boy reached out and touched his finger to the dusty glass and he drew the words R-I-P Dad.

The snakes in the truck had belonged to his father who had just died from being bitten by one of the neotropical rattlesnakes in his own collections.  Which is fucked up, right?  I wanted these snakes bad, but I felt so conflicted. 

So Richard picks up on the hesitation in my voice and he responded by shutting down the entire exchange.  He said if you're not one hundred percent ready then I cannot help you.  The snakes went to someone else. 

I was disappointed, but soon I realized there was another way.  If I couldn’t find what I needed in California, then I would go where you could buy anything: Texas.  There, venomous reptile enthusiasts gather in public.  They gather in conventions without shame. They sell and buy vipers, cobras, green and black mambas, everything that you want. 

So there's just about thirteen hundred miles between Riverside, California and San Antonio, Texas.  That’s eighteen hours of straight driving, and that’s exactly what I did.  I got another friend to go with me so we could take turns driving and I took money from another friend -- we’re going to call him Ben -- who wanted his own venomous snakes.  We hopped in the car and we went on our way. 

From the outside the convention building looked pretty unassuming.  It’s just four gray walls.  It looked like a DMV.  But, from the inside, it was nothing like a DMV.  There were dozens of card tables, and on top of those tables were hundreds of little plastic dishes, like to-go containers that you get from a restaurant -- except instead of mashed potatoes, inside were venomous snakes.  I was totally overwhelmed.  I was like a kid in a candy store except instead of candy there were horrible, horrible venomous snakes. 

But I had a plan.  I had prepared to buy a specific species.  But a quick loop around the convention building showed that no one was selling what I was looking for.  So I did something kind of stupid.  I started looking at snakes that I knew jack shit about. 

I remember looking across one of the vendor tables and I saw a snake that looked a little like one of the ones that I had wanted but I didn’t recognize the name on the label, which read puff adder

So I whipped out my phone and I took a quick look at the snake’s Wikipedia page.  I scrolled down to the bite section, and I read this: “If not treated carefully, necrosis will spread, causing skin, subcutaneous tissue, and muscle to separate from healthy tissue and eventually slough.  The slough may be superficial or deep, sometimes down to the bone.  Gangrene and secondary infections commonly occur and can result in loss of digits and limbs.” 

Of all snakes across the entire continent of Africa, puff adders kill the most people, supposedly because they're so widespread.  They take refuge under wood scraps near villages where there's a lot of human foot traffic.  But it’s also because they have terribly potent venom.  It’s primarily cytotoxic, meaning that it destroys cells.  It can punch holes through our red blood cells and degrade human tissue.  Lives and limbs have been lost to this snake. 

Now, I said that they're miraculous, but what’s truly a miracle is that they took my money at all.  I needed to provide evidence that I was a Texas resident, which just meant that I had to write down my Texas address, but the problem is I’m a really shitty liar.  So I just started like visibly sweating and getting red at this guy’s table as he's waiting for this address.  It took me about three minutes to write it down, but I did it. 

I got a bunch of snakes and two puff adders that day.  One for me and one for Ben.  I drove straight home. 

I pulled into my driveway, exhausted but elated.  I finally had my own venomous snakes. 

I set the day aside to put them up in their cushy terrariums. I'd recently bought out a reptile store that was remodeling their whole interior.  And so I had these really nice enclosures that looked very professional.  My garage looked like a Colombian drug lord’s reptile menagerie.  I even had a couch in there. 

So once I had set everything up, I plopped down on the couch and I looked at all the animals and I looked at my new puff adder.  I was filled with that same feeling that I had when I was looking at the tarantula back in kindergarten, completely content, free to just stare at this animal in wonder. 

And then it happened. 

I got a call from Ben.  He had been cleaning his puff adder’s enclosure.  Normally, when we do that, we take out the snake with tools and we put it in a holding box so you never have to reach a naked hand into the enclosure.  But Ben got lazy.  He was reaching in to grab the water dish.  He curled his fingers around the edges, completely ignoring the baby puff adder in the corner when, bam!  The snake reached out and bit him on the index finger. 

Now, quick note.  Not all snakes bite the same way.  Some venomous snakes are rear-fanged, meaning they have their fangs up in the back of their mouth so to envenomate they have to bite and chew.  It’s kind of clumsy. 

But the puff adder is not clumsy at all.  It’s front-fanged, meaning at the front of its mouth it’s got two opposable beautiful fangs.  So instead of this clumsy bite and chew, imagine a fist with these two hypodermic opposable needles just death punching Ben right in the finger. 

But he thought pretty quickly.  He grabbed his finger pad and he started to squeeze and he saw two, milky yellow beads of venom push out from the wound and started mixing with his crimson blood.  That same venom that could liquefy human tissue was now pumping through his veins. 

Ben did not die, nor did he lose his finger, but he was in the hospital for a few days.  He pissed blood for about twenty-four hours. 

Now, this hadn’t clicked when I had spent all this time reading about the horrendous things these snakes could do, and it hadn’t clicked when I met a widow and her son.  It only finally started to click after Ben.  I realized that, despite all the joy that these animals brought me, what I was doing wasn’t quite fair.  I was going to move to university soon, and I was probably going to have roommates and, of course, every roommate has their flaws.  There's that guy that doesn’t wash his dishes or the girl that borrows your makeup without asking.  I didn’t want to be the guy that had inadvertently killed his friends by keeping Africa’s deadliest snake underneath his bed. 

And there was also the case of my family.  My parents have been so understanding about this ever since I was little.  But when you think about it, American hospitals don’t really keep antivenom for African vipers on tap.  So they have to helicopter that shit in from the zoo.  So when I think about it, I think I exposed my family to the same danger faced by people who lived in remote snake-riddled African villages.  So I should probably say, sorry, Mom.  Sorry. 

So I realized now was the time for me to start giving away these snakes to capable people.  Then, around the same time, I had a change of philosophy where I realized that keeping animals inside of enclosures for my own pleasure wasn’t really the most ethical thing that I could do.  So I started giving away all of these animals.  I have to say, it felt so good to let go. 

One of the last animals that I gave away was a tarantula named Dorothy.  I'd met this woman in California who had a daughter named Trinity.  So really little girl, and her mom said that she was this aspiring young biologist.  She wanted to talk to me about careers in science and see if there was any way she could get paid to just look at spiders for a living. 

So we were going to arrange a visit because Trinity lived in Texas.  I asked her mom, “When she visits, can I give her one of my tarantulas?”  Of course she happily agreed. 

So I prepared for this visit.  I took all of these tarantulas out, and there were a bunch.  I set all these terrariums out on my dining room table, and when Trinity came, I said, “Take your pick.  You can have any one you want.  It’s going home with you.” 

I'll never forget the look in her eyes, just this little orange-haired girl with freckles all over.  And when I saw her peering through the foggy terrarium glass, I felt this warmth because I realized this was one of my people.  Except Trinity was really, really bold.  Out of all the tarantulas the she could take home, she chose Dorothy. 

Now, you're all scientifically inclined people.  I’m sure you're well aware that there are big fucking spiders in the world.  There's big fucking spiders, and then there's Dorothy.  Dorothy is like the size of a man’s fucking shoe.  Like she's gigantic.  She was bigger than this girl’s head.  But that’s the one that she wanted, and that’s the one she got. 

As I was packing this massive tarantula into this cookie tin for this little girl to take home, this thought came into my mind.  I thought, Am I doing something stupid again?  Am I doing something dangerous?  But just as quickly as the thought entered my mind, it vanished with the reassurance that Trinity was one of my people and it was time for her to do something a little bit dangerous but a lot of fun. 

Thank you.