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Five Questions With: Dr. Ben Abo on Snakes and Television

If you watch Kings of Pain on the History Channel, you know the hosts, Adam Thorn and Rob Alleva, handle some pretty amazing animals and insects. They get bitten, scratched, and exposed in almost every show. Their medical care on the show is provided by Ben Abo, DO. Abo is an EMS physician in Florida, a paramedic, and an expert in wilderness medicine with a keen interest in snakes. He is also director of the elite Miami-Dade Fire Rescue and Lake County Fire Rescue Venom 1 and Venom 2 teams. We caught up with Abo.

EMS World: You are nationally known as an authority on snakes and snakebites. How did you get started in this very niche segment of EMS and emergency medicine? What is important for providers to know about snakes?

Abo: Back when I was a resident, I actually had a phobia of snakes, but I had tremendous respect for nature and venom. I started learning from and working with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s Venom 1 team as I realized how many people were treating this incorrectly—and what a tremendous time to be able to put a halt to permanent pain, permanent disability, and permanent disfigurement! I completely owe my diving in to those that were on Venom 1, like Chuck Seifert, Scott Mullin, Lisa Wood, and Jeff Fobb. I find it especially important with my austere-medicine work and honestly my international public health work as well. I would say it’s especially important to remember that what you used to be taught may not be right, and by golly, don’t kill or capture the snake!

You currently serve as medical director for Florida’s Venom 1 and Venom 2 units—very unique assets. Can you tell us a little more about these units, what they do, and how they operate?

Abo: Venom 1 has been around for about 21 years now. It is the largest public access antivenom bank, with antivenom for everything from scorpions to cobras to box jellyfish to black widow spiders. Venom 1 not only provides a 24/7 dedicated person to deliver the appropriate antivenom, but they also serve as an expert set of eyes for poison control and me, as well as bedside teaching for those uncomfortable with treating envenomation. Venom 2, housed 24/7 by Lake County Fire Rescue, started a couple years ago, modeled after Venom 1, but we only house domestic antivenoms for now. That being said, our first call literally was for a cobra bite from Tallahassee, and they helped me get antivenom from Miami-Dade delivered during bad storms.

You’ve been a big part of a TV show this past season, working on the History Channel’s Kings of Pain. What was it like being part of such a high-profile and high-risk TV show and medical environment?

Abo: Working on that television show was quite a blast. I’d served on Shark Week as a safety expert already, but for this not only did I have to prepare as a wilderness EMS expert for international travel and safety for any sicknesses or accidents but also approve and fact-check for other injuries in the middle of jungles and beaches worldwide! Not to mention, I’m used to treating pain and being empathetic, but here I would much rather be sympathetic! We are talking about standby for known injuries hours from clinics, but also clearing wild areas for spitting cobras and watching out for king cobras in the wild. Not your typical EMS call for sure!

Between medical school and your residency, you started a nonprofit in Africa to decrease maternal and neonatal mortality and trauma. What drew you to that? Are you still involved? Is there a way folks can support it?

Abo: Life has been quite the journey. I’ve always been one to try to do the most good, because, honestly, why not? During medical school I saw an opportunity to efficiently make a difference to provide education for public and healthcare workers in Africa, so I did it with some others. I took a year off and delayed residency training. What an experience! And we did a lot of good, but more always needs to be done.

I have since folded the nonprofit, technically, so I could regroup and reframe. However, there is more work to be done, and I’m still in close touch with my contacts there and plan on returning soon. To help? The biggest would be financial support or basic medical supplies, as I plan on introducing more dirt bike sidecar ambulances again, especially in the outskirts of Jimma, Ethiopia.

In your publications and social media posts, you often note the power humor has to disarm as well as help heal. What are your favorite ways to bring humor into emergency medicine? And can you tell us about the “banana phone”?

Abo: Humor is so important! A smile and laughter are genuine and international without a need for translation. It really depends on the situation, but definitely some go-tos for me include the banana phone, puns, and good old goofiness while still showing I’m there to help. I actually get deep into this with my TEDx talk and a podcast with Medic Mindset, as well as a keynote speech I’ve given.

Oh, the good old banana phone. At every age I have always had a great reaction to that randomness, whether from patients, family, or staff. It started as a light joke to “consult” with another EMS physician, mentor, and friend, Ben Lawner. After a month of it I thought I’d decided to do my last post with a banana when I had my last ICU shift as a resident, but there was literally such a universal response to it. I still love getting random “banana phone” calls from former patients and my friends’ children.

In emergency medicine and disaster work, we see a lot of good and a lot of evil. To survive the negative stressors, we need to see the light and the reminder that light comes in many forms.

Barry A. Bachenheimer, EdD, FF/EMT, is a frequent contributor to EMS World. He is a career educator and university professor, as well as a firefighter and member of the technical-rescue team with the Roseland (N.J.) Fire Department and an EMT with the South Orange (N.J.) Rescue Squad. He is also an instructor for the National Center for Homeland Security and Preparedness in New York.

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