One of the most memorable patients from my ICU days was an exotic dancer, a young lady who claimed to be of Mexican origin and had adopted Juanita as her stage name. Her partner, a young, virile western diamondback rattlesnake, played the straight man in her act.
Exotic dancers in Winnipeg were pub entertainers. In the main they were a pathetic lot. The only prop provided by the beverage room owners was a small, elevated stage near the centre of the pub. In the larger pubs there would be three or four noon-hour acts. Each girl would rush in, perspiring if it were summer and shivering if it were winter, clutching her meagre accessories. There was no introduction or any attempt at finesse. Each had to first set up her own portable stereo player and select her music. Most could then do a workman’s job of undressing with some provocative movements and arranging their clothes in a pile at a corner of the stage. Clad only in g-strings they would gyrate their hips, more or less in synchrony with the music, make some suggestive thrusts at the front row drinkers, dip their nipples in a couple of beer glasses, then pick up their bundle of clothes and rush to change in the ladies toilet. A hasty exit was required, not to escape the clutches of the aroused audience, but to be on time for the next engagement.
The male clientele of these pubs were a study. Even though the front row tables were always the first occupied, the men seated at those tables pretended that they were there only for the drinking. They studiously ignored the dancers, barely glancing at the stage, except when the female anatomy was inserted into their field of vision. Otherwise, they feigned total disinterest. No one could figure why the pubs with dancers thrived and those without failed.
Juanita’s act was different. In fact, for several months she was the most popular pub act in town. She teased her male audience with the snake, which both fascinated and repelled them. The snake has special sexual symbolism for some men and “trouser snake” is a vernacular term for the male organ. I think this inspires macho images of sexual strength and dominance: coiled and ready to strike, dangerous, potent, and so on. Juanita capitalised on this male identification with the reptile and when she and her partner performed they had the undivided attention of every man in the pub. Not a word was uttered, not a drop of beer drunk. They gazed intently as the snake’s head disappeared between her thighs, then would crane their necks to see if it reappeared behind her. They didn’t clap of course, which would have suggested unbecoming interest. But they certainly didn’t try to molest her either. Within a few weeks she had developed a certain notoriety among the good citizens, tempered of course with proper expressions of disapproval.
Apparently the snake did not enjoy the performance as much as was thought. One fateful day, near the climax of her act, he bit her. It is the natural thing for a western diamondback rattler to do when handled. Juanita was not naïve about snakes and had had his venom glands removed, but she had neglected to have him defanged. Since he was a robust young fellow, he left two very visible puncture marks in her anatomy. Perhaps he didn’t have a full charge of venom on board but we weren’t about to take a chance. Juanita was admitted directly from emergency to the ICU where we could provide the care and attention that her unusual condition deserved.
She was admitted to the ICU on Thursday evening and antivenin injections were begun that night. There was swelling and cyanosis around the puncture sites, but she adamantly refused to even consider surgical debridement, a standard treatment in those days. In fact she had been bitten before and planned to go right back to work. Surgical dysfiguration might make her unemployable.
By Friday morning every doctor in the Hospital knew about our exotic patient and her erotic accident. Not only was snake envenomation a rare event in our sub-arctic climate, but the tender circumstances in which she had been bitten piqued the curiosity of our distinguished medical staff. Some may even have seen her act and knew how perilously close that snake’s head came to her private (or not so private) parts. The medical teams came in droves and every medical speciality made the ICU their first stop for rounds that day. Not only internal medicine, surgery and gynecology, but every other hospital speciality (including sports medicine) dropped by. Her case obviously presented a unique learning opportunity for students, interns, and residents of almost every Department of the Hospital.
Juanita was delighted to be the centre of attention. She welcomed her new admirers and was willing, even eager, to display her wounded part for their inspection. But their interest was short lived. After a cursory glance, most decided they were late for more important tasks. Contrary to the rumour that had been started by a mischievous ICU resident, Juanita had not been bitten on her most tender anatomy. The snake had sunk his fangs into the web between her thumb and index finger. Medical interest in her condition rapidly waned.