Indian Ink
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Indian Ink

Can an ant kill a human?

An ant bite caused my wife’s blood pressure to drop to dangerous levels

Image by Deepugn — സ്വന്തം സൃഷ്ടി, സി.സി. ബൈ-എസ്.എ. 4.0

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I live in Kerala, a tropical paradise of a state in India that markets itself as ‘God’s Own Country.’ Kerala is indeed a magnet for tourists who will be charmed by its picturesque beaches, pleasant climate, lush tropical greenery, many lakes, calm backwaters, thriving wildlife in protected forests, cool hill stations surrounded by scenic tea plantations, and so on. But these are also why the population density in Kerala is extremely high. With so many people crammed into a little state, the place has changed. At the turn of the century, if you drove down the national highway from top to bottom of the state, it used to be just long stretches of rural areas, pockmarked with a few towns. Whereas it’s now become one long urbanized stretch and there’s no better symbol of it than Kerala’s largest mall, which has sprung up within walking distance of my home.

This area used to be green farmland not too long ago

Though all this urbanization has caused us to lament about the many non-human species that have been wiped out, we tend to forget that some of these insignificant-looking species can be killers.

Like ants, for instance.

When I was a kid growing up on a farm in India, we used to view the ants that invaded our homes as pests and do our best to exterminate them. If we spotted an ant coming out of a hole in the wall of our home, we would use an ant pesticide in the form of a white chalk piece, with which we would draw a circle around the hole. I don’t know what the chemical in that chalk was, but ants hated it. I assume that was why that chalk is called the Lakshmana Rekha. This is a reference to a Hindu mythology about a line drawn by the Hindu God, Lakshman, which if you crossed, would result in instant death.

The ants would usually avoid using that chalk-circled entry to get into our house. But sometimes they would persist and find new entry points. They even once turned carnivorous, invaded my bed, and made sleep impossible for me with their tiny bites. So I had to get creative about being destructive, and ended up injecting syringes filled with diluted Clorox into the holes where the ants emerged from. That did the job and though I felt a bit bad for the ants, all those sleepless nights were killing me so it was a question of survival of the fittest.

These days, with the non-human species of life forms disappearing at an alarming rate, I tend to champion their right to coexist alongside us humans. (The only exception is mosquitoes: it’s a matter of hunting down these hunters before they hunt me down). Like the other day, I saw a snake. It has sunk its teeth into a frog and the two were struggling. Usually, I would have killed the snake but this time, I just watched nature’s drama without intervening and observed the snake eventually free the frog as it realized it had bitten off more than it could manage.

When your dinner ups and hops away

As for ants, I tend to brush them off instead of killing them, recognizing their right to share the planet. After all, they serve a role as scavengers, even carting off the dead mosquitoes that are strewn around after one of my killing sprees.

So when my wife, J, slipped on her shoe a couple of weeks ago, suddenly yelped, pulled it off to, and shook out a large black ant (see title image), I let the creature go.

We, along with my daughter, were on our way to a nearby clinic to get an RT-PCR test, which was supposedly needed to travel on a flight the next day. The clinic was only a few minutes away. But once we got there, J began hopping around saying her body was itching all over. I found it funny but suggested she take an anti-histamine to stop the obvious allergic reaction.

J is a strong believer in natural remedies and avoids any kind of drug as far as possible. So she refused the anti-histamine, went back to the car to rest, and asked me to call her when her turn to take the swab came around. This happened a couple of minutes later. When I reached the car, J asked me to get some water. I walked across to a nearby pharmacy and picked up some anti-histamine tablets along with the water.

However, J again refused the medicine saying she was fine, took a sip of water, and walked towards the clinic. But after a few steps, she called out that she wasn’t feeling well and asked for more water. So I helped her back to the car and went to get the water bottle. At which point, J informed me she was blacking out and promptly fell before I could get to her. She hit her head on the ground, but luckily not too hard and didn’t lose consciousness.

I quickly gave her the anti-histamine tablet, and marched her into the clinic, overruling her protests that she was fine. The clinic didn’t have a doctor or the facilities to treat her. At this point, J suddenly collapsed, began foaming at the mouth, and my daughter began wailing. Luckily I was holding J this time and was able to get her into a wheelchair. As we rushed her to the car, she unexpectedly reminded me to pick up her shoes. So I was able to calm my kid saying her mother was fine. I myself was anything but calm, and drove fast and we walked into the casualty unit of a nearby hospital in five minutes flat.

It was a relief when the casualty unit took charge. They wired J up to an ECG machine, put her on a drip, informed me that her BP was dangerously low, and they were observing her. For the next hour, the casualty team of doctors and nurses monitored her closely, pumped her full of anti-histamines, adrenalin, steroids, and God knows what. I linked up the casualty doctor with J’s sister, a doctor herself. She reassured me the treatment was appropriate. After an hour, J’s condition stabilized.

Laid low by a lowly ant

The doctor warned J that her condition on arrival was in emergency status and could have led to a heart arrest, and if she ever had a similar reaction, she should rush to the nearest hospital without delay. J was then moved to a ward and kept under observation for a few hours. I took the opportunity to make a quick visit home, dropped my kid off with her grandmother, and brought some food for J who hungrily gobbled it down. She looked like she had recovered, and sure enough, she marched off to find a nurse, and demand they let us go home. Once we got back, she had a bath and toddled off to the temple behind my house. Yup, normalcy was restored.

All in all, it had been a scary experience and I don’t want to recall the images of that day. Think about it. Just one ant bite caused a healthy woman to collapse. It was a reminder of the fragility of life and how we should not take it for granted but instead count our blessings. I recall Sadhguru, my favorite Indian guru, once saying something like this:

Every morning, look up at the sky and thank it for holding our planet in place in the vast emptiness of the universe. Next, thank it for holding you in place on this wildly spinning planet, and walk out into the world with a big smile on your face.

I’m smiling right now.

The Indian concept of Karma says your destiny is defined by your actions. J is a kind-hearted person who is always helping people and random creatures and plants as she loves nature, and has green fingers. Maybe it’s those actions that saved her.

Also, as the old saying goes, God helps those who help themselves. In other words, the poison of the ant bite had clearly affected my wife’s judgment, and I should have ignored her claims that she was fine and rushed her to the hospital the moment she showed signs of distress.

I also learned not to take nature for granted. Not even an insignificant ant.

If one ever bites you, keep a close watch, and if you start itching all over and start seeing rashes/bumps on your body, or start feeling dizzy or blacking out, then quickly pop an anti-histamine (always keep a strip of ‘Avil’ tablets handy), and rush to the nearest hospital without the slightest delay.

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