When Rom woke up from Demerol-induced sleep, he saw a pretty woman in white bending over him and asked, “Am I in heaven?”
He had been bitten by a prairie rattlesnake while snake hunting in the Chihuahua desert near El Paso, Texas, in 1966. His arm swelled rapidly, and he knew he was in trouble. At the emergency room in the William Beaumont Hospital, where he was stationed as a conscript of the U.S. Army, Rom expected to be treated with antivenom. But medics also wrapped a pressure cuff on his arm. He knew enough about snakebite treatment to know that was not recommended procedure. What followed was worse.
Rom’s severely swollen arm was placed in a container of ice, and doctors gave him Demerol for the excruciating pain. Dr. Herbert Stahnke of Arizona State University advocated the use of cryotherapy in snakebite treatment. He believed the combination of pressure cuff and ice would retard the spread of venom into the body while slowing tissue destruction. Rom was one of several snakebite victims of that time to undergo this treatment.
Even in his Demerol-haze, he suspected cryotherapy was going to complicate his recovery, but the army doctors were deaf to his protests.
Three days later, the medics allowed his arm to thaw and the pain worsened. Eventually, the swelling subsided, the open wound caused by the venom healed, and he was discharged. But he lost use of his trigger finger.
In 1971, Dr. Hugh Frank reviewed cryotherapy in snakebite treatment and concluded it caused more tissue damage than snake venom. While later victims were spared the torture of having their limb frozen and thawed, could Rom’s finger have been saved had the doctors listened to him? It’s hard to say for certain. The agonizing treatment taught him to be extra careful when handling venomous snakes, and he didn’t suffer another serious snakebite again.
Rom survived in better shape than several of his snake hunting colleagues. Shaking their hands is like shaking lobsters’ claws; many of their fingers are missing, deformed, or partly amputated.
Rom’s saga with the mistreated snakebite didn’t end for five years. Synovial fluid, the joint lubricant, leaked copiously from the nail cuticle. Doctors tried various treatments and failed. He grew used to changing bandages every day, but he never became accustomed to the smell.
Dr. Findlay Russell, a well-known authority on snakebites, advised him to amputate it if it bothered him.
After Rom moved to Madras in 1969, he sought the help of Irula medicine man, Chokalingam. He made a paste from the root of a particular plant and applied it on the finger every day. Two weeks later, it healed completely, but remained calcified, numb, and useless.
Annamalai, one of our Irula snake hunting buddies, had a withered, bony finger from a cobra bite. It got in his way, and one day, out of exasperation, he broke it off and threw it into the bushes.
Rom’s young sons and nephew thought that was cool. They urged Rom to break off his finger as well.
In its place, one son suggested he could fix a snake hook, like the iron hook-arm of Captain James Hook, the fictional pirate enemy of Peter Pan. The other son felt it had to be a collapsible fishing rod. The nephew thought a multi-tool Swiss Army knife would be handier. What about a snake tongs attachment? Should it be part of a customized snake hunters’ Swiss Army knife? The Whitaker line of prosthetic finger accessories sounded better than the finger itself.
Much to the disappointment of the boys, Rom wasn’t swayed by their enthusiastic ideas. Then the movie Edward Scissorhands came out, and a raging debate broke out once more.
Rom shook his bum finger while saying, “Old snake hunters never die; they just rot away.”