Bryan's life of pain: 26 snake bites, acid trips
A RESEARCHER who has dedicated his life to finding lifesaving drugs has experienced searing pain, non-stop bleeding and psychedelic hallucinations on the way.
BITE number one came two weeks after high school graduation. Ten minutes into the drive home, the signs it wasn't OK started.
A strange metallic taste in the mouth. All of the colour fading from sight, leaving a monochromatic world. A reverberating sound like an electric guitar.
Bryan Fry staggered out of his car and into a small service station, where he manage to gasp out: "I've been bitten by a venomous snake."
A fellow customer asked if he was quite certain it was venomous.
He answered with the "full exorcist" - projectile vomiting all over the lottery tickets, cash register and beef jerky. "My eyes rolled up into my head and I collapsed into a convulsing heap on the black and white chequer-patterned dusty linoleum floor," writes Dr Fry in his book, The Venom Doc.
On the ambulance ride to hospital, the hallucinating teenager experienced a series of heart attacks. It turned out the "beautiful" Timber rattlesnake had levels of neurotoxins more typically seen in the US.
But the near-death experience wasn't a wake-up call. Now 46, the reptile enthusiast has been bitten 26 times, each episode triggering uniquely horrific symptoms or mimicking an acid trip as they played havoc with his brain.
"You discover how many different types of pain there are in the world, how ill you can feel and survive, when you just want to die," he told news.com.au.
"Sometimes it's like a big splinter, or a chemical burn, or a different type of local pain. Each one is different depending on chemical variation. That's what makes venom such a rich source for drug design development, that infinite complexity.
"When your body is suffering that much, just the body can make you experience delusions, let alone when there's venom - your brain flips a couple of gears."
Dr Fry admits he is "obsessed with venom", tracing it back to "survivor's guilt" after suffering from spinal meningitis at 18 months old. "The first thing I remember is being strapped to a hospital bed with tubes everywhere," he says. "It left me with lifelong deafness in one ear and shocking balance."
But he also looks back on it as "a little brush with magic".
"I've had a few bites but in some ways, it's been worth it," he says, "because of the scientific discoveries that have come out of it."
Dr Fry has always worked hard to keep his animals calm, but even the smallest nip can be fatal. When a Stephen's Bandit Snake moved the wrong way and bit him, he suddenly had a pounding headache and crushing feeling in his chest, "like a giant was sitting on it."
As the ground came rushing up towards him and the world faded to black, he remembers thinking, "I could get a PhD out of this."
He came to around ten minutes later, and noticed his thumb hadn't stopped bleeding. This is why having an encyclopaedic knowledge of snakes and the effects of venom isn't always a comfort.
Dr Fry realised the bite had stopped his body's clotting mechanisms and there was a "a realistic chance" he was bleeding into his brain. Even if he survived that, he would most likely be left with a serious neurological defect.
"I started bleeding everywhere, I was terrified," he says. "I started bleeding out of my butt. After 18 hours, I started thinking I should have gone into butterfly research."
Dr Fry's blood chemistry was completely disrupted, he explains in his book. Had he been a snake's typical prey, the venom would have been more concentrated and caused several massive blood clots, causing a rapid, catastrophic stroke.
"In my larger blood volume, the venom had been diluted and instead produced millions of useless tiny blood clots ... the net result was that I had no raw materials left to make a blood
clot if I really needed to. So I was at great risk of bleeding to death. The venom had consumed all my clotting factors and my blood was like water."
The venom had stabilised his heart and blood pressure at extraordinarily low levels, making it the perfect chemical to treat congested heart failure. "That was the silver lining out of bloody episode," Dr Fry explains.
He has been responsible for major breakthroughs in developing drugs to treat deadly diseases, using venom for painkillers and adding compounds to medicines that treat diabetes and high blood pressure.
These days, happily married with two dogs, the University of Queensland associate professor says he takes fewer risks - but he still adores snakes.
He is working on drug development in the School of Biological Sciences and appearing on a new National Geographic app, exclusively available to eligible Optus customers. The last bite came in 2010, and he hopes it was the last.
Unfortunately, all the bites have had an effect on his immune system, and he has developed a severe allergy to snake venom and has to wear protective clothing in the lab.
The day he was bitten by a Pilbara death adder at his home in remote Anstead, he immediately knew he was in "mortal danger" as he felt a profound allergic shock coming on. "My skin erupted into countless large hives, turning me into one giant itch," he writes.
"I felt like flaying my skin but then I was distracted by trying to vomit and breathe at the same time."
His oesophagus began constricting and a large volume of fluid from his blood cells began accumulating around his neck. As his blood pressure crashed, he cracked open vials of adrenaline and antihistamine, stabbing himself in the shoulder and pressing the plunger.
On the way to hospital with a housemate in the driving seat, he found himself choking on vomit and soiling himself uncontrollably as his body tried to expel the substance. When his head began swelling alarmingly, he gave himself another shot, only to see a suburban mother driving a station wagon drive off the road as she stared at him in horror.
Dr Fry slowly sank into paralysis.
"The most delicious sensation crept over me, like a technicoloured chemical cloud," he writes. "Blue gave way to black; my pupils became dilated and fixed. The lights became very bright and the colours very vivid in a way quite like being on psychedelic mushrooms.
"The medical staff had no idea I was conscious and could hear everything they were saying. I just had no way of letting them know I was in there. But I didn't care. The neurotoxins were now having an extremely potent narcotic effect. Life was beautiful. It was like breathing the most potent dental gas, times a thousand.
"I was floating high above the world without a single care. I was having the most amazing party-for-one inside my immobile shell. Time warped.
"For eons I drifted contentedly through the universe, exploring far-off lands and distant galaxies. This was a classic dissociative out-of-body-experience; a psychedelic state of mind that is reached by disconnecting the mind from the body.
"Fortunately and unfortunately at the same time, the anti-venom did its job and my Rastafarian world faded all too soon back to the much more mundane reality.The days,months, years and centuries I had been travelling turned outto be contained within the eight hours I was fully paralysed."