Snake Doctor

on January 11, 2011 in Snake Doctor

I was a patient in hospitals many times as a child. I suffered from rheumatic fever and Sydenham chorea. Just about the time I was over it, something happened and back in the hospital I went. Being away from my home and family in Tucker was difficult. Atlanta can be a very big and scary place for a small child, even while surrounded by caregivers. I remember one time more than others. This time I was in the big new hospital. My room was very large with four big beds in it. The halls were brightly lit day and night. The floors were shiny clean, but the best part about it was – I had a roommate – a smiling roommate.
I called her Alice because she looked like Alice in Wonderland with her long blonde hair. To tell the truth, I cannot recall her real name, so today as always, I’ll call her Alice.
This particular time I was hospitalized because the medicines I was taking settled into my gums, and I woke up one day with four abscessed teeth. And there, early in the morning, an orderly would come in and take me to the dental office which was down in the basement of the hospital. But before I could go, I had to take an injection of penicillin. The doctor explained to my mother, that this injection was as much penicillin that an average person would take in a lifetime. The shot temporarily paralyzed me and I was forced to lie on my back while they applied pressure to my leg. This was extremely painful, but the worst was over in about a half hour. Still, thirty minutes is a long time for a child to be in excruciating pain. This happened about every two days until all four teeth were extracted. Except for my wheel chair ride to the basement, I was on strict bed-rest.
I looked forward to getting back to my room to talk to Alice. We were about the same age, nine or so. We shared books, flowers, and enjoyed visits from each other’s families. Alice did not seem to be very sick. Her leg was hurt. But as the days went by, Alice became more and more sick.
“Daddy saw a snake doctor that morning,” Alice said to me one day.
“A snake doctor? Why?”
“’Cause that means there is a snake nearby,” she tried to explain to me.
“I don’t get it.”
“I went with Mama and Daddy to the garden…”
“What garden?” I asked.
“In our backyard, well actually, it’s a big field. We live on a farm and we have big gardens all around our house.”
“Why was a snake doctor there?”
“A snake doctor is a bug that warns folks that there is a snake nearby.”
“Are you kiddin’ me? We don’t have anything like that in Tucker.”
“Yes you do. You just don’t know it ‘cause you aren’t farmers.”
“Daddy has a garden in our backyard, and my Aunt Sarah and Uncle Doc have a huge garden across the street at their house…”
“Daddy saw it and warned Mama and me to look out for a snake. Daddy says the good Lord sends snake doctors to warn us. That’s why Mama’s so sad when she’s here. ‘Cause she didn’t heed the warning close enough, and I got bit by a copperhead snake!”
“Does it hurt really bad?”
“Yes, it does and it’s not getting better. It’s worse. See how swollen my leg is? Come over here Diane and look at it,” Alice pulled back the covers from her leg and I sat up straight to look across the way at her leg. I could not see it very well, but could not get out of my bed to really take a good look at it. The nurses were very strict and I did not want them to tell my parents that I had disobeyed them. And Mama would be here soon. She came every morning and Daddy picked her up every evening. I changed the subject.
“What does a snake doctor look like?”
“Well, it’s long and skinny and has wide wings. My Mama says it’s really just a dragonfly, but a special dragonfly. It’s larger than a normal one and is black and white. Not pretty and green like most dragonflies. They say that’s how you know it’s a snake doctor. You heed the sign of the snake doctor or you’ll be looking for a human snake doctor. And that’s what happened to me.”
“Did it hurt really bad when the snake bit you?”
“Gosh, yes. It really did!”
“What were you doing in the garden? Pulling weeds?”
“No, Mama was picking okra. She wears socks on her hands ‘cause the okra bushes are itchy and prickly. She needs me to hold the bucket for her to throw the okra in.”
“Where was your father?”
“He was pulling corn – down several rows from us…”
“Alice, I’m sorry your leg hurts. My leg hurts really bad too when they give me that shot. The pain goes away, but my leg is sore all the time. But, not like you, Alice, not like you. I’m so sorry.”
Then one morning I woke up and Alice was gone. I was the only one in the room. I asked about her. The nurses said that her treatment had to be intensified and was moved into another room. Every so often, I heard Alice cry and sometimes scream out. The crying and screaming reminded me of the burn victim I was in a room with when I was seven years old. Every night, they took her away for skin grafts. She screamed when they came to take her. I could see her struggling in the shadows on the wall. I covered my head with pillows to drown out the sounds. They would bring her back just before day break. She was reduced to quiet sobs all day. It was awful and now, my friend Alice was suffering too.
I wanted to see Alice, but was told to stay in my bed. When Mama was there, she read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm to me, and encouraged me to listen to her and not Alice. Sometimes Mama had to read really loud to drown out Alice’s sobs.
One night after my parents were gone, I slipped out of my room and tipped toed down and across the hall. I peeped through a window where the curtain made a small crack. I wanted to see Alice. And I did. Alice was strapped down to a weird looking mattress. Her leg was black and swollen huge.
But before I could slip through the door, I heard someone’s squeaky shoes coming down the corridor. I ran into the nearest open door. There I found myself in a room full of high up aluminum baby beds. I walked over to see one of the babies. He was beautiful and perfectly normal, except that he had a giant head. He looked old enough to walk, but his head actually anchored him down. As I walked from one bed to the next, I realized there were three beds in that room and each bed had a baby in it, all with giant heads. I didn’t know what to think about all this. I stood in the middle of the room spinning in circles, looking at each baby, trying to understand it all.
About that time, my nurse, Miss Lavenia Lavianna, walked up to me and took me by the hand. She led me out of the room and bent down to talk to me. She asked me if I was okay. I nodded my head yes, because I could not find my voice to speak. I felt numb and confused to the point of dizziness. She did the talking.
“Miss Diane, you know not to get out of bed. If you need something, you press that button! You are on strict bed-rest! What would your doctor say? What would your parents think if they thought you were not being looked after here? What are you thinking? And what in the world are you doing in that room?”
I took a deep breath and found my voice, “What‘s wrong with those babies?”
She put her arms around me and held me close. I really think she did not want me to notice the tears in her eyes. “They are water-head babies,” she whispered.
“Will they get well?”
“Sweetheart, we don’t know.”
“They will never get well and go home?”
“Miss Diane, I cannot answer that question. We can always hope and look to research for answers. We don’t have the answer to everything. One day maybe the doctors will find a way to cure them, soon I hope. There is always hope. Okay, now young lady, it’s back to bed with you!”
I did not budge, but pulled back, “Alice is tied up! Why do you have Alice tied up?”
“Well, I see you have been making the rounds tonight.”
“I saw Alice! And she’s tied up! In that room!” I said as I pointed in that direction.
“Listen to me. Miss Alice has snake poison in her system. We did all we could with meds. But she lives far away on a farm, and was way out in the field when she got bitten. Her mother and father took turns running her to the house. They couldn’t get her here soon enough. We have her on an ice mattress part of the time. And sometimes we have to pack ice packs around her leg. We are trying to save her leg, and we will! And I promise, Miss Alice will get well and she will go home.”

My nurse picked me up and carried me back to bed. She adjusted my bed so I could sit partially up. She then rolled my bed over to the big window in my room. There she pulled the drapery cord. She opened up a sparkling view of the city of Atlanta just before sunrise. Then she turned to me and said, “This is what you should be looking at. The skyline of Atlanta is glorious! And look, the Capitol. See the dome? That’s real gold. Did you know that gold was panned by volunteers? All Georgians, up in Dahlonega, in the North Georgia Mountains, they panned that gold and then loaded up a long line of old timey wagons. Teams of horses pulled those wagons of gold all the way to Atlanta.” She smiled as she explained, “Yes they did. And they presented the gold as a gift to Governor Marvin Griffin. And now they are making the Capitol Dome look just like a king’s crown, something for all Georgians to be proud of!”
“Exactly what do they do there?”
“That is where important men and women make laws and budgets. That’s where part of the money comes from for hospitals and research.”
“For the water-head babies?”
“Yes,” she said smiling at me, “for the water-head babies.”
“Could they buy a helicopter to bring hurt children to the hospital?”
“Yes, they can.”
Then she suddenly became stern again, “Young lady, let me take care of the children on this hall. I promise to do my best. Now as you can see, this bed has wheels on it! I can roll your bed out to the nurses’ station and keep an eye on you there. Or you can stay here and keep your eyes on the Capitol. What do y’ say?”
“I’ll stay here and keep my eyes on the Capitol.”

“Yes ma’am, I promise.”

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