We practice as independent doctors right after MBBS in Nepal. One of my professors used to say, “One day, you will sleep as a medical student and wake up as a doctor.” What that meant for me was, after I graduate from medical school, I’d pack my bags and head towards a rural village to “save lives.” Like any other life transitions, this one felt unchartered, unknown, and scary. I felt severely underprepared. As time passed by, I started appreciating my internship year. We have a year of internship after MBBS at the teaching hospital where we work as a junior doctor. At Beltar—my workplace, I’d remember how the patient with enteric fever was managed back home, brush up on the details with a quick read in UptoDate, and play doctor.
The general structure of how I practiced medicine was; model what my professors used to do, read up on what is new/has changed, and treat patients. One day, some people carried a young child with droopy eyes, flappy tongue, and drowning in his saliva to the PHC. “He was bit by this snake!” The man with tearful eyes was holding on to a dead brown snake. Do you see a problem there? My go-to structure for practicing medicine crumbled. Underprepared would be an understatement. We were lucky that a team of trained armies helped set up the snake bite center in the PHC.
As some months passed by, I started feeling somewhat competent in managing snakebite cases. Any lesson you learn in medicine is a work in progress, but here are some I can recall:
The oversimplified version of snakebite treatment is–give antivenom and wait. In my experience, what we do while waiting, matters a lot. The neurotoxin that makes the patient paralyzed does not shut his brain down. He can listen and see, and we can use that to our advantage. Tell him what you are doing. Let him know what to expect. Talk to him. Open his eyes and make him see his loved ones are nearby. Make him believe that people are working hard to help him.
Amid scrutinized protocols, results of giant multi-center RCTs, and excellent well-formatted articles, it is easy to forget that what we do is taking care of a patient—the most basic of human skills. “LATERAL RECUMBENT!” I found myself shouting out of instinct. The patient was drowning in his saliva. My team tried hard to protect the patient’s airway as per protocol by extending his neck. But the patient was having a hard time breathing due to secretions. Sure we could not use the suction; unreliable electricity supply, broken suction machine, lack of funding, and whatnot, but we could still care. Use your mirror neurons; what would you want people to do if you were where the patient is?
Timely referral can be the difference between life and death. Understand the limitations of where you are working. Do you have a properly functioning suction? How reliable is your electricity? Do you have a ventilator? How far would you have to send the patient to get one? Manage your internal alarm accordingly. For us, the only respiratory support was a bag valve mask, and the transport to the nearest facility with a ventilator was at least 2 hours. Knowing that helps you be acceptably anxious and make informed decisions.
There is no substitution for empathetic yet informative communication with the patient and their loved ones. Clarify your assessment, plan, and signs that will prompt you to refer the patient. Talk to the anxious patient parties in a supportive tone but tell them that antivenom has ADRs, probably more than most drugs you use. When working in rural, especially in high-risk cases like snakebite, keeping the patient and their caretakers informed should be a priority.
Talk about ways to prevent snake bites. These beautiful creatures aren’t violent. Be interested in how the patient was bitten. After a while, you will start recognizing a pattern that you can use to educate the target population. Also, not everyone comes with the snake to the hospital. Have a poster of different types of snakes available. Identifying if the snake was venomous is one of the initial steps, after all. Print the local and national statistics about antivenom use and results and paste them in the waiting area. It will help patient parties calibrate their expectations accordingly.
Summer and rainy seasons are when the unfortunate encounters between humans and snakes happen. It is easy to forget the snakebite management protocol, equipment necessary, what workarounds were used to help us, and what drugs we have in stock. A small refresher session can go a long way in boosting your team’s confidence in treating snakebites.