Funnel web horror: ‘I felt something crawl up my leg’

A NSW mum who was bitten in her bed by one of the world's deadliest spiders has spoken for the first time about her incredible battle for survival.

Fiona Donagh, 51, from the Southern Highlands, was asleep in her bed on Boxing Day when around 3am she felt something crawling up her right leg.

The crawler was in fact a two-inch wide male funnel-web spider - six times more toxic than a female - and one of the world's most deadly spiders with a bite that can kill in just 15 minutes.

Fiona explains her incredible story: "It was Boxing Day and my sister was staying. We probably went to bed about 10 or 11, I'd had a couple of glasses of bubbly that evening being Christmas time, so I went to bed and woke up some time and went to the loo.

"I came back to bed and was almost asleep again, it was very hot night and I was tossing and turning as you do, and I actually felt something going up my right leg, I felt something crawl up my right leg and it did not feel at all familiar to me.

"So as you do if you feel a fly on your arm you brush it off, my reaction was to actually to kick my legs and arms in the air and that's when I felt it.

"It must have run or jumped very quickly to my torso and to under my left breast and I felt a very sharp pain and I knew I'd been bitten.

"Afterwards I discovered it had also bitten me on my upper left arm but I didn't feel that one immediately because the bite on my torso was so painful and so shocking.

"It was like a blue bottle jellyfish sting, I've been stung by a blue bottle and I've got to say the initial feeling was like a very bad jellyfish sting, that radiated. It wasn't local, after the first couple of seconds it became a burning sensation right across my torso. It felt like it was on fire.

"I hopped out of bed, it must have been just seconds from the first bite to my leaping out of bed and switching on the light, and the spider was sitting there on my bed, so I could see it immediately."

Fiona ran into the kitchen and gabbed a glass mixing bowl to place over the top of her attacker on the bed.

She said: "Something about growing up in Australia you hear a lot about spiders and snakes and I guess I'd heard from when I was younger that one of the most important things is correct identification.

"So even though this has never happened to me before, and normally I wouldn't go near a spider because I'm arachnophobic, I knew I needed to do something and trap it.

"I looked in the mirror and I could see the rash had already spread in the few seconds, within a minute, it was a red rash that looked a bit like sunburn across my torso."

"Oscar, my son, was asleep. My sister, she lives in France, was staying in the spare room so I woke her and through her jet lag I told her 'I've been bitten by a spider, I don't know what type it is but we might have to go to the hospital'.

"She looked the spider up on the internet to see what it was, at that point it was about five minutes into the spider bite. I was kind of scanning myself thinking all right, this is very painful and it's burning, but I thought 'oh if it's a funnel-web, it must be a lot worse'.

"I was upright and straight so I thought it mustn't be a funnel-web it must be something else. I wasn't feeling like I was going to die at that stage. I was reluctant to call emergency straight away because I thought they might say, well there's lots of spider bites and you can't waste resources with an insect bite, don't be silly."

Fiona was on hold for about 15 minutes and began to think to herself she might be all right as she was only feeling the sting from the bites at this stage.

She said: "So this was about 25 minutes after the bite. When the nurse came on the phone, I said I had been bitten by a large black spider, but I said my sister had said it wasn't a funnel-web. But she told me 'we are not spider experts, none of us, I will call the emergency services'.

"She said 'Tell me, how are you feeling now?' and just at that moment the first symptoms started to show, my lips started to go numb and started to go tingly and I could feel it spreading around my face and my tongue. And I said to the nurse 'Oh, I feel different now'."

It was now the symptoms of the bite appeared causing at first extreme sweating, tinging to her lips and face and extreme saliva production and muscle spasms.

The ambulance arrived 30 minutes later but when the paramedics came into the house they did not have any anti-venom.

"Between here and Bowral hospital I was essentially lying there in the ambulance holding the paramedics hand thinking I was on my way out," she said.

"And then I thought of Oscar and I thought no it's not, it's not all right, and I opened my eyes and I said to David the ambulance guy, 'am I going to die?' and he said 'I've done everything that I can do at this point, now the rest is up to you so you make a decision, what have you got to live for?' And I thought of Oscar."

"And then I passed out."

"The spider, Yorick, came with me to hospital as one of the fireys put him in one of those little urine jars because they knew they would need him for identification and perhaps to milk him to make more anti-venom.

"Yorick caused a lot of interest, he was still alive in the jar. He was still fighting fit and raising up against the glass with his fangs. Everybody was looking at him at the hospital because most of them had never seen a live funnel-web. I had never seen a live one till that night."

At Bowral Hospital Fiona was given the anti-venom which had arrived from Bankstown and immediately after the doctors gave her two doses the sweating she was suffering stopped.

"I wasn't even sick anymore, I was just feeling like I was on my way out, I didn't think I was going to see Oscar again. I really have never felt anything that made me feel like this and with such a terror and panic rising.

"Oscar's dad died when he three months old and I just remember thinking who is going to look after my son?"

Fiona was transferred to Liverpool Hospital intensive care unit (ICU) but she said her memory is still blurry of what happened.

"The doctor saw I hadn't got any better and spoke to the toxicology people again who said they should give me two more vials of anti-venom. The anti-venom itself isn't that good for you, and some of the complications which arise from spider bites and snake bites are not just the bite itself and the toxins but the anti-venom itself can make you very sick.

"As Yorick was there in the ward with me some people noticed he was looking a bit 'down' because he hadn't any air in the jar. So one of the nurses poked some holes in the top with a syringe but sadly she went too far and she stabbed Yorick. Yorick died in his jar in hospital."

"Some people were pleased about this, but I've always thought that spider didn't intend to be in my washing, it didn't intend to bite me, it didn't think, it reacted. I'm not a fan of spiders but I am aware it was not an intentional attack. So something in my mind actually felt a bit sorry for him."

By 8.30am on December 27 at Liverpool ICU Fiona had stabilised but the doctors told her it can take 24 to 48 hours until they are fully happy to let someone go.

Fiona said she managed to speak to Oscar on FaceTime and let her son know she was feeling a little bit better.
She still had trouble breathing from asthma, but was unable to receive any medication because it could impact with the anti-venom.

"It was then too that they found I was beginning to show the symptoms of heart failure so they called a cardiologist and she discovered that only 30 per cent of my heart was functioning, and the left side of my heart had completely stopped."

"This sent them all into a bit of a flurry, and I was moved to the acute ICU ward and when a cardiologist came to see me he said I had essentially had a heart attack. He said there is an enzyme that is produced when you have a heart attack and that was showing in my blood."

Fiona was kept in for a couple more days as doctors monitored her heart hoping for signs it was picking up. On the fourth day she was moved out of acute ICU into a heart ward and Fiona was told her vital signs were improving.

"The vital signs kept picking up and I was discharged on December 30 and my friends had been around and under strict instructions stripped the bed and washed the sheets.

Fiona's latest heart tests came back and almost miraculously her heart function has been recorded as perfectly normal and all signs of coronary disease had gone.

"The most important thing for me is the heart is up and running and apparently it's a very good heart."

"I kept Yorick, but he's shrunk a bit now. He's a bit dehydrated to about a third of his size. I might plan to have some kind of send off for him, maybe a funeral or cremation.

"The pest control people are coming out next weekend and spraying the whole place and two metres around the property all around the outside."

News Corp Australia

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