by Jaclyn Roco
photography by Liz Lucsko
It started off as a “scratch” in August of 2001, just a faint abrasion that was not worth noticing. All too soon, though, the angry blister began to grow more and more painful, spreading to the point where the surrounding skin area on Robert Hoover’s left leg became hardly recognizable as human flesh.
Robert, or “Bob,” as he is affectionately called, a Second Street city of La Verne resident, recalls that the “scratch” was both painful and confusing. When his symptoms became acute, he was tossed into a merry-go-round of doctors and specialists, all puzzling over the cause of the mysterious wound. “They had a specialist at the hospital who checked this for any viruses, if there was bacteria or anything else. There was a bacteriologist,” Bob remembers. “He took samples because my skin was causing a variety of reactions.”
After mulling over what resembled a necrotic wound on his leg, the doctors finally came to the conclusion that Bob’s wound was caused by a spider bite. The question was, what kind of spider could have created such a horrific, spreading wound that put Bob in the hospital for several months?
Out of the barrel of controversy and doubt came the assumption that Bob’s bite could have been caused by the brown recluse spider. Also known as the “violin” spider for its distinctive violin shaped marking found on its body, the brown recluse spider (Loxosceles reclusa) can be identified by its eyes that total six, arranged in three pairs of two, rather than the more common eye pattern of eight. This particular spider is feared for its fanged bite, which causes deadly tissue damage and secondary bacteria infection to the surrounding skin. Currently, there is no known antidote for the brown recluse’s bite. In severe cases, a bite victim endures extensive hospitalization, with the affected area in danger of amputation. “I don’t have diabetes or anything; if I had, I would have lost my lower leg,” Bob says matter-of-factly.
“[The bite] gets red or kind of blanched, itchy and develops a central red area that looks like a blister,” explains Dr. David Rhodes, a family physician who has practiced for 17 years, and who now works for the Saint Jude Heritage Medical Group located in Diamond Bar, Calif. “There are some dark blue areas that will form. The skin will ‘fluff,’ and in a necrotic wound, the [skin area] around the tissue will turn black. When you see the black skin, it’s dead. If there is enough tissue damage, and if you don’t have enough blood flow, you can lose something.”
According to spider experts, the brown recluse spider has been the medical field’s choice for symptoms dealing with necrotic wounds. They argue that other conditions like infections with Staphylococcus, Lyme disease, fungal infection, diabetic ulcer, herpes, poison ivy/oak dermatitis and others can also be possible causes for these wounds.
Bob says his doctors may have been reluctant to name a specific spider, although the brown recluse was probably the most likely candidate due to its infamy. He says although the doctors were sure that his right leg was infected with Staphylo-coccus, there were only assumptions made on the cause of the wound created on his left leg. Bob wants to be careful with his own assumptions, however, especially because the retired Glendora High School biology/natural science teacher says he has had no proof. “I didn’t know what the origin was,” Bob says. I have no verification that it was a brown recluse. The doctors didn’t say what kind. I thought maybe it was just an abrasion from tripping over.”
Lack of evidence brings nods of discouragement from arachnologist Rick Vetter, who says there is no evidence of viable brown recluse populations anywhere in California, even in La Verne. Only in desert areas would a spider (Loxosceles deserta) related to the brown recluse possibly bite a victim. “If [Bob] lived in Palmdale, or Victorville, possibly, but recluse bites are so grossly over-diagnosed that there are 30 different things that it could be,” Vetter says. “If it truly were a recluse bite, then you should be able to go to the victim’s home and find recluses. And unless the spider was caught in the act of biting, or found dead in bed sheets, there is no way to prove it was a spider bite, let alone a recluse bite.” As a spider taxonomist working for the Department of Entomology at the University of California, Riverside, Vetter has been working on recluse issues in Southern California for more than 10 years. He is highly respected, quoted and the defining source regarding the brown recluse spider.
In his experience, Vetter says he has analyzed hundreds of spiders submitted to him from countless people who have become a part of the California brown recluse spider paranoia that he claims has been started by sensationalized media periodicals. And according to these periodicals and the popular medical diagnoses of many doctors, there is an epidemic of brown recluse spider bites. Ask around and one will eventually find acquaintances who swear the feared recluse has bitten them. Meanwhile, Vetter states that of course none of the spiders he has received were brown recluses. Based on his research, Vetter says brown recluse spiders are found nowhere in California even if doctors seem to think that they are the only culprits capable of causing such horrible necrotic wounds.
In areas where brown recluse spiders are common, especially in the Midwest of the United States, they may be found in reclusive areas-under rocks or trash cans, boxes, clothing or shoes, Vetter states in an article titled, “Brown Recluse and Other Recluse Spiders.”
The author of many articles available on-line, Vetter informs his audience of two issues at hand: 1) the myth of a California brown recluse spider and 2) the faulty diagnoses doctors are giving to patients with damaged tissue symptoms. “So far, I have collected about 120 brown recluse bite diagnoses in California in the last three years, and only eight historical verifications of the spiders exist in the state [through possible immigration where they are native],” Vetter states. “I also recently finished a study soon to be published where a woman in Kansas collected more than 2,000 brown recluse spiders in her home in six months. In over six years of occupancy, none of the four family members were ever bitten by a recluse, even though they found them every week.”
In his article, “Myth of the Brown Recluse Spider,” Vetter claims, “There is a great ‘awareness’ of brown recluse spiders in California mostly through a misguided media barrage, which is fed by a fear of the unknown and familiar.”
“I repeatedly have seen the media in their ‘quest to seek out the truth’ write completely speculative stories about the existence of the brown recluse in California,” he says. “There are no populations of brown recluse spiders living in California. In case this upsets your applecart, I repeat, there are no populations of brown recluse spiders living in California.” Amazingly, Vetter’s constant barrage on medical experts have reached the point where even some doctors have become more cautious when making diagnoses dealing with spider bites.
“It just seems to me that there aren’t that many brown recluses in California,” Dr. Rhodes says. “The people here in California should be more concerned with the black widow. I’ve seen some bad spider bites, but I’m not that comfortable with saying that they all could have come from a brown recluse.”
Former University of La Verne doctor Dr. Marvin Snell is also cautious. “There are only few spiders, the violin and the black widow, with a bite that has venomous effects on the body,” Dr. Snell says. “The black widow is the only spider bite I have ever treated.”
Fortunately for the black widow, its common presence outside of people’s homes saves it from becoming part of the spider craze that the brown recluse has surely brought.
Bob Hoover says that he finds himself caught in between experts like Vetter’s advice and the diagnosis given to him by his own doctors.
“I can’t prove anything,” Bob admits. “I can only go with what the experts tell me, and I don’t know whether they would say brown recluse or just spider bite. I didn’t see a spider, and I may have been working in the backyard, but if there was a spider there, it may have bitten me, or it could’ve been in the house I suppose, but I don’t know. Whatever it was, it developed into a big sore area.”
“It’s got to be a spider bite,” says Vera Hoover, Bob’s wife and academic records analyst for the University of La Verne. “Every time the doctors looked at it they said it was a spider bite. They assumed it was a brown recluse. The tissue of the flesh was not there, and that was what they were going by.”
Imogene Hanawalt, resident of the Hillcrest Retirement Homes in the city of La Verne, says she experienced a similar incident. After returning from vacationing in her cabin home in northern California two years ago, Imogene noticed a strange “spot” on her leg. She chose to report to her doctor nearly a week afterward only after the “spot” continued to turn into a series of colors from white to yellow, to red and black and had grown half an inch across below her knee.
Because her regular doctor was not in, Imogene saw a fill-in doctor who diagnosed her wound several days after her check-up. “He looked it up and said, ‘I think it [is] a brown recluse by the looks of it,’ Imogene recalls. “He knew enough to look it up. He gave me some medicine, some antibiotics. It was quite a while before it healed. It took maybe two months; it healed on its own.”
Somewhat disturbed by her experience, Imogene admits she now shakes out her clothes whenever she vacations. “They say brown recluses hide in places where it’s quiet. They digest the flesh,” she says. “I have no idea when it bit me. I didn’t feel it or see it. The bite began to get red and black and oozy in the middle like they do.”
Indeed, the initial bite of the brown recluse is painless. The pain, victims share, comes only after you notice the bite itself.
Bearing with the excruciating pain brings Bob back into the picture. For Bob, there still remained the question as to whether his leg would be saved. Whether a brown recluse spider bite or not, he had to face the fact that he was not getting any better. He was finally rushed to the hospital in September of 2001 after two doctor examinations, just after the terrorist attacks in New York had occurred. He stayed at the hospital for a period of 52 days. “The doctors put things on it, and it didn’t ever deteriorate. It kept on enlarging until after a month. They had a specialist look at it and put me in a hospital and decided to cut that part of the skin off,” Bob ruefully laughs.
Bob says the doctors had to put a vacuum pack on his leg to prepare for a skin graft. While in preparation, another spot on his leg became affected. Skin removed from his thigh area was used to cover the affected skin that was no longer on his lower leg. “The doctors had to suction out the fluid, and, in the process, he was still going through therapy,” Vera remembers. He was in extreme pain through all of this.”
While in the hospital, Bob says he was almost forced to bear his own pain as well as the terror going on the 24-hour news coverage dealing with the Sept. 11 attacks. “I don’t know whether I was aware of 9/11 happening until I saw it on television the morning of the 12th, and then for two months, all I could see on television were those planes hitting the towers. That wasn’t helping; it just made the spider bite increase,” Bob says. “You know, if you’re in pain and suffering, and you have to watch that for a while, it just made the bite worse.”
Meanwhile, Bob says he has become more cynical about his condition and about spiders in general. “There’s so many kinds of spiders working around the yard or around the house; any spot I see moving on the floor I step on,” he laughs. “I’m not afraid of spiders, and I could squash a black widow with my fingers, but I’ve been sensitive to [this issue].”
Although understandable, this fear generated by numerous brown recluse diagnoses has become all too common, especially in California, where it is says that no such spider exists. Still there are those brave doctors who feel that diagnoses should be based on the symptoms and not on what spider experts claim are faulty medical practices.
CBS medical expert Dr. Lewis Pincus, for example, says he sees no reason why brown recluses should not be found in Southern California. “They do exist,” Dr. Pincus says. “Brown recluse [spiders] cause a classic crater-like lesion called a volcano lesion, a big red swelling one to three inches in diameter with a pus-filled crater in the middle.”
“Typically brown recluse spider bites occur at night, and the victims don’t know they have been bitten,” explains Dr. Jeffery Burkhart, Fletcher Jones professor of biology at the University of La Verne. A teacher of a venomous animal course for the National Park Services, Burkhart is also a biologist specializing in arthropods.
Although not an arachnologist, Burkhart does have first-hand experience on what a brown recluse spider bite should look and even feel like. As a former Oklahoma resident living in a rural farmhouse, Burkhart says it was probably of no surprise that he would become one of the brown recluse’s victims. “They are very common in the Midwest,” Burkhart claims. “There sometimes is a lot of tissue damage involved in a bite. But in my case, the bite looked like a pimple, but was so hypersensitive that anything touching it was painful.”
Burkhart, seemingly nonplussed with his whole experience, remains involved in his work and his appreciation for spiders and other arthropods. In his case, a mere dose of antibiotics resolved the reaction within days. “For me it was a minor problem,” Burkhart remembers. “I believe there is only a single record of death, and I also believe that people often have mild reactions. Only in severe cases is there cause for amputation or skin grafting.”
“A lot of times we do put [spider bite victims] on antibiotics,” Dr. Rhodes says. “You’re never 100 percent sure it was a bite, but if they’re in a lot of pain, we have to put them on something. There’s no anti-venom for brown recluse [bites]. There is anti-venom for black widow [bites] for extreme cases.”
Severe cases, especially when dealing with the brown recluse spider, are uncommon in Burkhart’s judgment, however, and doctors should be aware of other things that cause similar symptoms, he says. In fact, other spiders beside the brown recluse may be just as likely to be the culprit. Burkhart says that nearly all spiders are venomous, but few have the combination of having large enough fangs and venom strong enough to cause serious reactions in humans. Usually spiders only bite when they are threatened; therefore, every spider has its own range of toxins, he says.
Spiders are venomous, not poisonous, Burkhart explains. Poisonous refers to something being eaten or put into oneself to become affected. “Venomous are toxins put into us by an animal with a specialized mechanism such as a stinger or set of fangs,” he says.
“Probably the most dangerous spider in California is the black widow, but they don’t generate the same level of a paranoia because we’ve grown up with them,” Burkhart claims. “For other venomous spiders, it’s the secondary infection that becomes the real problem. After bacteria get into the bite, the bacteria are not controlled, and secondary infection occurs. The spider just kicks things off.”
“The infection is caused by bacteria carried in the mouth parts of the spider,” Dr. Pincus explains. “Usually [victims] respond to antibiotics orally, but conceivably someone could require IV antibiotics.”
Dr. Rhodes says it is possible to differentiate between a possible spider bite and an infection by examining the central area of the wound. “Usually Staphylococcus bacteria aren’t going to give you a black, [dead] area,” Dr. Rhodes says. “It’s going to be more puffy.”
Burkhart says he is very aware of the ongoing debate between spider experts and doctors. In fact, he admits he took one of Vetter’s spider identification courses beforehand and says that Vetter is one of the leading authorities on identification of California spiders.
However, being an expert does not mean that there are no exceptions to any of the rules. Although Burkhart sides with Vetter in saying that there are probably no populations of the elusive brown recluse spider in California, there may be cases where stowaways have appeared in the state, he says. Sporadic sightings are no cause to fear a growth of population, however. Burkhart says that even though immigrants from the Midwest doubtlessly bring brown recluses with them when they move, the main question to ask is whether they have become established. “Apparently, immigrant brown recluse spiders have been unable to establish a viable population,” he says.
Dr. Robert Neher, professor of biology at the University of La Verne, is a friend of Bob Hoover and a colleague of Burkhart. He agrees with Burkhart’s opinion that it is possible that a few brown recluses could be found in the area, thus becoming the possible cause behind Bob’s bite.
Vera, who says she heard of a television special on brown recluses, refuses to wave away certain possibilities over her husband’s diagnosis. “They say there are 12,000 people bitten by brown recluses,” Vera says, sagely nodding her head. “They’re not uncommon.”
Dr. Pincus agrees. “I don’t see why the brown recluse spider should not live in California, especially in Southern California,” he argues. In fact, although there is no verified record of brown recluses within the city, not to mention state limits, there are several other species of the Loxosceles genus that can be possible candidates too. The desert recluse, Loxosceles deserta, is typically found in California desert regions, while Loxosceles laeta, originally from South America, has been found to have established viable populations in the areas of Sierra Madre, Alhambra and Pasadena.
“I don’t have exact information,” Neher says, “My information is anecdotal really. I have a lot of questions about it, but the truth is somewhere out there in the middle. We really don’t know whether there are two varieties. There are bacteria that do the same exact thing as the brown recluse. It kills the tissue. This information should be readily available to doctors and to people.” Neher believes that doctors should not be considered totally at fault for dealing with misdiagnoses concerning something they are not experts on. “Doctors aren’t taxonomists,” he argues. “They can say the brown recluse is at fault due to symptoms. The doctors are just treating the systems; they are not experts on spiders. It doesn’t matter if it was a brown recluse as long as [the victim] gets well. People misinterpret; they don’t understand the trouble with words the doctors use,” Neher continues. “What they should be saying is, ‘It looks like a spider bite.’ There is a lot of miscommunication involved.”
The arguments for and against medical diagnoses dealing with brown recluse spider and its elusive bite go on. But unless everyone involved – doctors, arachnologists, professors, current and future victims alike – make the effort to become more knowledgeable about the subject and about each other, the myth of the California brown recluse spider will live to weave another tale for another day.
Meanwhile Bob Hoover is just starting to put the bad experience behind him one-and-a-half years later. Bob continued on with his skin graph check-ups, the last one he hoped to undergo in mid October 2002. Obviously, the experts have not weighed down his or his wife’s opinion and trust toward the doctors, despite some reservations they may have had. “They’re familiar with tissue,” Vera says about the doctors. “They’re good doctors. We trust them.”
“Sometimes I don’t think the doctors told me everything behind the scenes,” Bob confesses. “I’ve been going in [to the doctors] as a regular thing for general health. Genetically, I have a few years left, I guess.” Caught in a web of confusion, Bob casually admits that there is no smoking gun to his story. With no evidence in his hands, he doubts he will ever be able to convince spider experts as to what did bite him or whether something bit him at all. In the meantime, the shadowy figure of the elusive spider that caused such mayhem in the first place will continue to be one of the major suspects in this seemingly continuing tale.