Steamboat Springs People will go to great lengths to save their kids. Everyone has heard the urban legend about a mother who somehow summons the strength to lift a car off her child trapped beneath.
While Benji Amsden of Steamboat Springs didn't display any feats of superhuman strength after his 15-year-old son, Mike Makens, was bitten by a black widow spider, Amsden did engage in a weeklong chase straight out of Hollywood - and just as improbable. The film-like saga climaxed with the exchange of money for antivenin in the Mexico City airport.
A black widow spider bit Mike, a Steamboat Springs High School student, on a Monday before school last month. Susie Makens, Mike's mother, said her son was writhing on the floor in pain within five minutes. A black widow's venom is a neurotoxin, which destroys nerves or nerve tissue and causes a tremendous amount of pain. The bites are rarely fatal.
While Mike was being treated for pain at Yampa Valley Medical Center, his family was weighing the options for further treatment. The family decided to forgo the use of an antivenin commercially available in the U.S., because of potential side effects and allergic reactions that can be particularly threatening - and potentially fatal - in children.
The family had heard about an alternative antivenin produced in Mexico and used by the U.S. military. Amsden said the side effects are minimal, but the federal Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved a U.S. version of the drug.
A day after the bite, Susie Makens' brother Jim put the family in touch with Terry Fredeking, an acquaintance and president and CEO of Antibody Systems in Hurst, Texas. Fredeking is self-proclaimed "expeditionary biologist" and has himself been compared to movie characters such as Indiana Jones. Fredeking specializes in obtaining exotic or dangerous substances for pharmaceutical companies. His work has taken him from Mexico, where he collected vampire-bat saliva, to Australia, where he collected parasites from a Tasmanian devil.
In one of many articles written about him, Fredeking proclaims, "If you can pay for it, we can find it." But when Fredeking learned about Mike's painful situation, he dropped everything and offered his services for free.
"All of us have a humanitarian backbone; at least I'd like to think we do," Fredeking said from his Texas lab Thursday. "In this case, it isn't the type of thing that should be considered monetarily. : I wouldn't want to take advantage of a situation like that."
Within hours, Amsden said he and Fredeking had mobilized a whole network trying to locate the Mexican antivenin in the U.S., while also exploring ways to locate the drug in Mexico and legally transport it to the U.S. Amsden contacted people he knew in the military, but that route fizzled out.
"The problem there was being able to explain why two to three vials would be missing," Amsden said. "Trying to legally get it from military to civilian is impossible."
From Tucson, Ariz., to Miami, the team contacted organizations researching the drug.
Each lead eventually fizzled out, Amsden said, until Fredeking called him late in the week and told him he had located some vials in Mexico.
"I was almost in tears when he told me that," Amsden said.
Fredeking and his legal team had also come across a 1980s FDA ruling that they believed would allow the drug to be transported and administered to Mike legally. Fredeking said the law allows for a foreign drug to be transported and administered if it is prescribed by a U.S. doctor, is not a narcotic and is not available in an identical form in the U.S.
Meanwhile, Amsden and Susie Makens had been told by YVMC administrators that they would not allow the Mexican drug to be administered at the hospital due to legal concerns. While upset at the time, Amsden said he understands the hospital's decision.
"They were obviously in it for the big picture," Amsden said. "I'm in it to save my kid."
Amsden said it was up to Mark McCaully, Mike's doctor, to decide if he wanted to prescribe the drug and administer it to Mike somewhere outside the hospital. A message left at McCaully's office Thursday was not returned.
Should McCaully refuse, Amsden said he and his wife were prepared to fly Mike to Mexico City in an air ambulance to receive the drug there.
"We both agreed that was our next step if Dr. McCaully wouldn't do it," Amsden said.
But after McCaully consulted with malpractice attorneys, Amsden said, he decided to take the risk.
"He took a huge step," Amsden said. "He was a pioneer for us."
The antivenin's manufacturers, Instituto Bioclon, agreed to have a representative meet Amsden in the Mexico City airport with the drug - for only $500. On Saturday, Amsden flew to Mexico City from Denver, through Dallas, to retrieve the drug. The Bioclon representatives, with a sign reading "Mr. Benji," greeted him in the airport.
Amsden paid for the drug and headed for home. Despite all the necessary paperwork and the FDA's ruling, Amsden said he was worried about making it back home with the recently purchased antivenin.
"Because I'm down and back in a day, that can be a fishy thing," Amsden said.
Amsden returned to Steamboat Springs on a Sunday, and that day, Mike received his last doses of morphine and was released from the hospital. In his offsite offices, McCaully injected Mike with two vials of the antivenin.
Amsden said it was amazing to see Mike's reaction to the drug. The pain that had been torturing him for nearly a week began to leave in 20 minutes, Amsden said, and after less than two hours, Mike walked out of McCaully's office on his own and went home.
Looking back on the whole ordeal, Amsden said it was "just this side of a miracle" and "kind of like this episode that should be on 'House.'"
Even Fredeking, the expeditionary biologist, said it was one of his more intense pursuits.
"I wouldn't want to see anyone in pain like that," Fredeking said. "This was an immediate threat."
Fredeking said he normally spends months consulting with attorneys and preparing for his expeditions, while trying to help Mike was "a constant adrenaline strain for five days."
The experience has inspired Amsden to create a network that will streamline the adventure he went through and help black-widow bite victims, especially children, and their doctors get their hands on the alternative antivenin from Mexico.
"I'm going to set up a network so other kids don't have to go through this," Amsden said. "Basically we're going to set this up so it becomes the nucleus of information for black widow spider bites because they're so dangerous to kids."
Fredeking has agreed to help and Amsden said McCaully has agreed to be the network's point doctor. Bioclon has agreed to make the drug, Aracmyn Plus, available seven days a week. The network will be nonprofit, Amsden said.
Fredeking said he doesn't expect any trouble from the FDA for one simple reason: "They don't like bad media."
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