Changing the light bulb doesn’t sound like a dangerous occupation. But for Banksia Village resident Gordon Wheatley this simple household task nearly cost him his life 37 years ago, thanks to a bite from a deadly funnel web spider.
On 31 January 1981, at his Sydney home, Gordon (then 49 years old) was bitten by a funnel web spider. Little did Gordon know he was about to become the first human “guinea pig” for the new antivenin, developed by the late Professor Struan Sutherland, that would literally save his life.
Gordon tells the story of his amazing near-deadly encounter:
“On Saturday, January 31, 1981, I was changing a light bulb in my home at Cheltenham when I trod on something on the floor. I thought it was a drawing pin or something like that. When I had restored light to the room, I found it was a funnel-web spider.
Fortunately, my next-door neighbour was a GP, so we called him over and he applied a pressure bandage to slow the progress of the venom. You don’t use a tourniquet in a case like that, you use a pressure bandage.
Up to that moment, though, I had done all the wrong things – going upstairs, changing my clothes to go to hospital – and I was actually pushing the poison through my body.
By the time I arrived at Ryde Hospital I was hyperventilating and passed out. They transferred me to intensive care at Royal North Shore Hospital, where they held some of the recently developed funnel-web serum which had been prepared from venom collected at the Australian Reptile Park.”
Funnel web venom is one of the deadliest and fastest acting in the world, and can kill a human in 15 minutes. Gordon was incredibly lucky as, prior to December 1980, there was simply no antivenin for funnel-webs. While Professor Sutherland had been working on development of an effective antivenin for 14 years, when Gordon was bitten the serum had not been used on a human. Gordon’s wife Gwen had to give permission for the serum to be trialled on Gordon – who by this time was deteriorating rapidly – without knowing whether it would work.
Gordon’s story continues:
“When I arrived at RNSH Dr Malcolm Fisher sought permission from my wife to use the antivenin, because they still had no idea whether it worked. She asked the doctor what he would do and he said that if he had a loved one whose life was in danger and there was a drug that could save the person’s life, he would use it.
They administered the recommended dosage and it did no good. So they contacted Professor Sutherland in Melbourne who said: “Well, it hasn’t killed him so keep pumping the stuff into him”.
It took three further ampoules of the serum before any impact was made, but within an hour Gordon started to feel well again. He was kept in hospital overnight for observation but was well enough the next day to be discharged.
Gordon’s odds beating recovery and the successful emergency trial of Professor Sutherland’s funnel web antivenin was reported in media around the world at the time, and has even been included in an e-book titled “See Australia and Die: Tales of Misadventure Down Under”.
About 18 months after his death defying encounter, Gordon decided he’d been given a second chance at life and retired to Moruya. He moved into Banksia’s retirement village at Broulee in 2001, and has been making the most of his “second innings” enjoying travel, keeping fit, and being involved with Banksia’s Men’s Shed and Residents’ Committee.
Even though there’s a successful antivenin available today, a bite from a funnel web is dangerous so it’s always wise to take precautions, especially in summertime.
Funnel web facts
The funnel web spider found on the east coast of Australia is the most venomous spider in the world.
They are medium to large in size and can vary from 1-5 cm, and their body colour can range from black to brown. Male funnel web spiders are more lightly built than female ones. Their bite can be extremely painful.
The Australian Reptile Park has a helpful Spider Identification Chart available on their website.
The Government’s Health Direct website advises the following steps if bitten by a funnel web spider:
- Provide emergency care including cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if needed. Calm the person and call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.
- Apply a pressure immobilisation bandage.
- Keep the victim from moving around.
- Keep the bitten limb down.
- Bandage the limb from the area of the bite to the hand or foot, then back up to the body.
- Immobilise the limb by splinting if possible.
- Tell the victim to keep calm.
- Do not move them at all.
- Wait for the ambulance.
For other spider bites
For all other spider bites, including from red-backed spiders, apply a cold compress or ice pack directly over the bite site to help relieve the pain. Seek medical assistance if further symptoms or signs of infection develop.