Updated: April 17, 2022 11:52:21 am
One day in 2008, a young woman was bitten by a cobra. When the faith healers failed to cure her, the family rushed her to a private hospital in the nearest town of Sivasagar, once the seat of the mighty Ahom kingdom that ruled Assam for 600 years. But the private hospital, too, had scant experience in dealing with snake bites. The woman died on the way to the bigger state-run medical college in Dibrugarh.
Dr Surajit Giri, then a young anaesthesiologist in his mid-twenties, who was on duty that night at the Sivasagar hospital, was left distraught by the episode. He started reading up on snakebites and antivenom. Thus began his journey as Assam’s foremost snake-bite specialist, who has cured more than 1,200 snakebite victims from across the state.
Trust and treatment
Giri’s first experience of treating a snakebite victim was in Sivasagar: a 50-year-old farmer who was bitten by a pit viper in 2008.
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By then, Giri had been posted at a community health centre in Demow, a quaint town 10 km from Sivasagar. Here, it was not just the lack of infrastructure that deprived snakebite victims of timely cure. Many people, Giri recalls, were loath to being administered antivenom. “Those days people trusted faith healers, I had to literally beg victims to take antivenom,” says Giri. “After some victims were cured, they started trusting my treatment.”
The conventional line of treatment for snakebite is to keep the patient under observation and administer antivenom — purified snake venom that acts against whole venom — once the patient shows symptoms.
The initial hurdles cleared, Giri’s reputation grew fast. When he started out, in 2008, not more than a couple of snakebite victims would seek him out. Currently, he treats 60-65 patients every month — snakebites, he points out, are very common in rural Assam.
Indeed, snakebites plague the whole of India — an average of 58,000 people die from snakebites annually. This adds up to nearly 50 per cent of global snakebite deaths.
With his phone number all over social media, it is not uncommon for Giri to get the occasional panic call at an odd hour from different parts of the state.
After that helpless night in 2008, Giri couldn’t be more satisfied. He says, “When a patient is bitten by a venomous snake, that person and his/her close ones are in utter state of panic. So to see that sense of relief in their faces when the patient recovers finally is the biggest satisfaction for me as a doctor.”
The snake-bite ward
Giri’s work at the Demow community health centre, an unassuming two-storeyed structure amidst paddy fields and tea gardens, has meant it has emerged as a model facility for snakebite victims — unlike any other in the state. Since 2020, the centre has had a one-of-a-kind dedicated snakebite ward too.
Giri has trained the centre’s health care workers — organised into a Fast Response Team (FRT) — to identify red flags and treat snakebite victims, even in the absence of doctors. “We have also educated some volunteers from the public. Known as Venom Response Team (VRT), their job is to spread awareness about snakebite among their community and safely and scientifically transfer victims to hospitals,” says Giri.
100 such VRTs routinely share information on a WhatsApp group they are part of.
Duleswar Goala, a tea garden worker in Sivasagar, is one of them. Goala says he became a VRT so that he could learn about snakebites — an endemic problem in the tea garden — on the WhatsApp group. “During the plucking season in tea gardens, it is common to get one or more snakebite victims every week. Our garden is just 2.5 km from Demow CHC and we often take snakebite victims on our bike if an ambulance is not available,” says Goala.
A ‘zero death’ celebration
Giri’s constant engagement with the subject has led him to do several innovations too. He devised his own cure for pit viper bites — notoriously common in Assam — when he realised that the conventional antivenom treatment did not work in people bitten by the snake.
“In India, antivenom is made from the venom of four snakes — cobra, krait, Russel’s viper and saw-scaled viper. Antivenom made from the venom of these snakes can cure victims bitten by these snakes,” he says.
So Giri started administering magnesium sulphate for pit viper bites — this treatment protocol has been published in a peer-reviewed journal on toxicology.
Giri has saved at least 100 pit viper victims using this method.
There is another statistic Giri has kept meticulous track of. In 2021, 464 snakebite victims were brought to the Demow community health centre, among which 53 were bitten by venomous snakes. Giri and his team cured each one of them.
At the end of the year, the team enjoyed a rare treat: a large pineapple cake with red icing that read, “464 Snake Bites, 0 death celebration.”
The writer is a freelance journalist in Assam and tweets at nabarun_guha45.
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