Mum Fiona Donagh fought to stay alive for her son after spider bite

An arachnophobic mum who was bitten in her own bed by one of the world's most lethal spiders has spoken for the first time about her incredible battle for survival.

Fiona Donagh, 51, from the Southern Highlands, New South Wales, Australia, was asleep in her bed on Boxing Day when around 3am she felt something crawling up her right leg.

The crawler was in fact a two-inch wide male funnel web spider - six times more toxic than a female - and one of the world's most deadly spiders with a bite that can kill in just 15 minutes.

Fiona caught the spider and named it Yorick. Photo / CATERS
Fiona caught the spider and named it Yorick. Photo / CATERS

Not realising what the bug was under her sheets, Fiona shook her legs and arms before feeling an intense jellyfish-like stinging sensation to her body as the spider sank in its fearsome fangs.

As she leapt out of bed to turn on the light she saw the black-bodied would-be assassin sitting on her bed and realised she could be in trouble.

But with an amazing presence of mind Fiona calmly trapped the creature under a glass bowl knowing identification could be vital for doctors and fearing for the safety of her 10-year-old son Oscar, asleep in the house. Next the teacher woke her sister who was staying with them, to tell her she had been bitten.

Although she was petrified, Fiona knew she had to trap the spider. Photo / CATERS
Although she was petrified, Fiona knew she had to trap the spider. Photo / CATERS

Within half an hour the intense pain of bites on her torso and one on her left arm had developed into severe muscle spasms, sweating, excess saliva production and confusion and Fiona collapsed on the sofa as paramedics raced to her home.

The deadly spider - which has since been dubbed Yorick - travelled with the mum-of-one in the ambulance and to Bowral then Liverpool hospitals where doctors administered not one, but four shots of anti-venom in a bid to save her life.

Fighting against the lethal toxins coursing through her veins, Fiona knew she had to stay alive for her son Oscar, whose father Steve had passed away when he was just three months old.

With true Aussie grit she battled back despite at one stage suffering a heart attack caused by the deadly poison. And incredibly just a few weeks later Fiona has stunned doctors with an almost complete return to full health, including now having a healthy heart.

She said: "It was Boxing Day and my sister was staying. We probably went to bed about 10 or 11, I'd had a couple of glasses of bubbly that evening being Christmas time, so I went to bed and woke up some time and went to the loo.

"It felt like a jellyfish sting"

"I came back to bed and was almost asleep again, it was a very hot night and I was tossing and turning as you do, and I actually felt something going up my right leg, I felt something crawl up my right leg and it did not feel at all familiar to me.

"So as you do if you feel a fly on your arm you brush it off, my reaction was actually to kick my legs and arms in the air and that's when I felt it.

"It must have run or jumped very quickly to my torso and to under my left breast and I felt a very sharp pain and I knew I'd been bitten.

"Afterwards I discovered it had also bitten me on my upper left arm but I didn't feel that one immediately because the bite on my torso was so painful and so shocking.

"It was like a blue bottle jellyfish sting, I've been stung by a blue bottle and I've got to say the initial feeling was like a very bad jellyfish sting, that radiated. It wasn't local, after the first couple of seconds it became a burning sensation right across my torso. It felt like it was on fire.

"I hopped out of bed, it must have been just seconds from the first bite to my leaping out of bed and switching on the light, and the spider was sitting there on my bed, so I could see it immediately."

Fiona ran into the kitchen and grabbed a glass mixing bowl to place over the top of her attacker on the bed.

She said: "Something about growing up in Australia you hear a lot about spiders and snakes and I guess I'd heard from when I was younger that one of the most important things is correct identification.

"So even though this has never happened to me before, and normally I wouldn't go near a spider because I'm arachnophobic, I knew I needed to do something and trap it.

"To see this thing sitting on my bed I felt violated, how did it get in my bed? That's where you are meant to be safe. I didn't think immediately it was a funnel web, I just thought I've been bitten by something and it feels really bad.

"I looked in the mirror and I could see the rash had already spread in the few seconds, within a minute, it was a red rash that looked a bit like sunburn across my torso.

"Oscar, my son, was asleep. My sister, she lives in France, was staying in the spare room so I woke her and through her jet lag I told her 'I've been bitten by a spider, I don't know what type it is but we might have to go to the hospital'.

"She looked the spider up on the internet to see what it was; at that point it was about five minutes into the spider bite. I was kind of scanning myself thinking 'alright, this is very painful and it's burning', but I thought 'oh if it's a funnel web, it must be a lot worse'.

"I was upright and straight so I thought it mustn't be a funnel web it must be something else. I wasn't feeling like I was going to die at that stage. I was reluctant to call emergency straight away because I thought they might say, 'well there's lots of spider bites and you can't waste resources with an insect bite, don't be silly'."

Fiona was on hold for about 15 minutes and began to think she might be alright as she was only feeling the sting from the bites at this stage.

She said: "So this was about 25 minutes after the bite. When the nurse came on the phone, I said I had been bitten by a large black spider, but I said my sister had said it wasn't a funnel web. But she told me 'we are not spider experts, none of us, I will call the emergency services'.

"She said 'Tell me, how are you feeling now?' and just at that moment the first symptoms started to show, my lips started to go numb and started to go tingly and I could feel it spreading around my face and my tongue. And I said to the nurse 'Oh, I feel different now'.

It was now the symptoms of the bite fully appeared, causing at first, extreme sweating, tingling to her lips and face and extreme saliva production and muscle spasms.

"I thought I was a goner"

Fiona was transferred to intensive care. She recalls thinking she was "on her way out." Photo / CATERS
Fiona was transferred to intensive care. She recalls thinking she was "on her way out." Photo / CATERS

The ambulance arrived 30 minutes later but when the paramedics came into the house they did not have any anti-venom.

Fiona said: "I thought to myself I was a goner at this stage. When the first guy came in he said it wasn't a funnel web. But the second guy said they didn't know and they were going to treat it as a funnel web bite.

"He said to me 'look at me and this is what we're going to do'. At that point I really started to lose my memory of what happened. They put me on oxygen and the paramedic was trying to treat the symptoms.

"Between here and Bowral Hospital I was essentially lying there in the ambulance holding the paramedic's hand thinking I was on my way out. And a very unusual thing came over me, from being very cold and sick and intense and extremely worried, suddenly I had this image in my head of a huge golden butterfly.

"It appeared, landed on my belly and it was flapping its wings and it started on my feet and just started wrapping me in twine, this golden twine from my feet and I felt completely warm, completely relaxed and completely happy and I remember thinking whatever happens is alright.

"And then I thought of Oscar and I thought no it's not, it's not alright, and I opened my eyes and I said to David the ambulance guy, 'am I going to die?' and he said 'I've done everything that I can do at this point, now the rest is up to you so you make a decision, what have you got to live for?' And I thought of Oscar.

"I remember with the butterfly moment thinking David must have thought I had gone crazy, because I was smiling, maybe it was the drugs. And then I passed out.

"The spider, Yorick, came with me to hospital as one of the fireys put him in one of those little urine jars because they knew they would need him for identification and perhaps to milk him to make more anti-venom.

"Yorick caused a lot of interest, he was still alive in the jar. He was still fighting fit and raising up against the glass with his fangs. Everybody was looking at him at the hospital because most of them had never seen a live funnel web. I had never seen a live one till that night."

Fiona battled back despite suffering a heart attack caused by the deadly poison. Photo / CATERS
Fiona battled back despite suffering a heart attack caused by the deadly poison. Photo / CATERS

At Bowral Hospital Fiona was given the anti-venom which had arrived from Bankstown and immediately after the doctors gave her two doses, the sweating she was suffering stopped.

She said: "That's when they knew they had the right anti-venom, but nothing else improved, it was just the profuse loss of fluid that they got under control.

"I don't remember getting the anti-venom, the doctor later told me I spoke to her and answered questions but I don't recall it. I knew there were lots of people around me because it wasn't busy that night.

"I wasn't even sick anymore, I was just feeling like I was on my way out, I didn't think I was going to see Oscar again. I really have never felt anything that made me feel like this and with such a terror and panic rising.

"Oscar's dad died when he was three months old and I just remember thinking who is going to look after my son?"

Fiona was transferred to Liverpool Hospital intensive care unit (ICU) but she said her memory is still blurry of what happened. Her sister, who was with her at the time, told her later the cubicle she was in at the hospital was the same one that Oscar's dad Steve had once been treated in.

She said: "The night I gave birth to Oscar his father became very sick, he had cancer, but that night he became very sick and they took him down to emergency at Liverpool Hospital and that was the cubicle they had treated him in.

"In fact next to him there was someone who had been bitten by a brown snake and they had died. This night with me and the funnel web bite I was being triaged in the same cubicle as Oscar's dad.

"The doctor saw I hadn't got any better and spoke to the toxicology people again who said they should give me two more vials of anti-venom. The anti-venom itself isn't that good for you, and some of the complications which arise from spider bites and snake bites are not just the bite itself and the toxins but the anti-venom itself can make you very sick.

"Male funnel webs do wander looking for a mate and we think when my sister brought the washing in that day and put it on the bed it must have been caught up in there. Obviously it was looking for a female and a friend of mine has since joked was I wearing a spider costume or something?

"As Yorick was there in the ward with me some people noticed he was looking a bit 'down' because he hadn't any air in the jar. So one of the nurses poked some holes in the top with a syringe but sadly she went too far and she stabbed Yorick. Yorick died in his jar in hospital.

"Some people were pleased about this, but I've always thought that spider didn't intend to be in my washing, it didn't intend to bite me, it didn't think, it reacted. I'm not a fan of spiders but I am aware it was not an intentional attack. So something in my mind actually felt a bit sorry for him."

By 8.30am on December 27 at Liverpool ICU Fiona had stabilised but the doctors told her it can take 24 to 48 hours until they are fully happy to let someone go.

Fiona said she managed to speak to Oscar on FaceTime and let her son know she was feeling a little bit better.

She said: "I was still in ICU and hooked up to lots of things and then I started complaining of asthma and they wouldn't give me the medication because they said it would affect my heart, and I had extraordinarily low blood pressure, a very high heart rate and very low oxygen levels.

"By the evening I was still having trouble breathing and I said to them 'I've got really bad asthma and I can't breathe'. They had given me some different medication before and they said they'd get more of that.

"But there was a nurse standing by my bed looking at all of the observations and she said 'no we're not giving her asthma medication'. She said there was something else going on, and she went and got an oxygen mask like a Darth Vader mask which breathes for you and put that on me.

"Immediately as she whacked it on I felt like I was breathing again. And this is when they found I had fluid on my lungs and that's why I couldn't breathe and it was the nurse that spotted that the complications were starting to kick in.

I was diagnosed with having had a heart attack

"It was then too that they found I was beginning to show the symptoms of heart failure so they called a cardiologist and she discovered that only 30 per cent of my heart was functioning, and the left side of my heart had completely stopped.

"This sent them all into a bit of a flurry, and I was moved to the acute ICU ward and when a cardiologist came to see me he said I had essentially had a heart attack. He said there is an enzyme that is produced when you have a heart attack and that was showing in my blood."

Fiona was kept in for a couple more days as doctors monitored her heart hoping for signs it was picking up. On the fourth day she was moved out of acute ICU into a heart ward and Fiona was told her vital signs were improving.

She said: "I was still very, very weak. My muscles had all weakened and I could barely sit myself up in bed, I couldn't even lift my arm up, I felt like someone had zapped all the power out of me and that was one of the effects of the venom too.

"The vital signs kept picking up and I was discharged on December 30 and my friends had been round and under strict instructions stripped the bed and washed the sheets. A friend came over and we popped Oscar to bed and then checked the bed 50 times looking under all the covers.

"On New Year's Day I went back to a doctor as I was worried about everything, my sleeping and breathing, but she said everything was within normal range and she told me actually I just needed to sleep as I had been through a trauma.

"I was exhausted. My son's godparents drove down from the Blue Mountains and picked Oscar and I up and took us to their house and I was just looked after and completely relaxed. And then nine days later I felt well enough. I could drive myself home."

Fiona's latest heart tests came back and almost miraculously her heart function has been recorded as perfectly normal and all signs of coronary disease had gone.

She said: "It was an acute but temporary heart condition and the doctors said it was a result of the bite, and it is likely the bite could have affected other organs so they are still monitoring that.

"The most important thing for me is the heart is up and running and apparently it's a very good heart."

Yorick eventually shrivelled up and died. Fiona may hold a funeral for him. Photo / CATERS
Yorick eventually shrivelled up and died. Fiona may hold a funeral for him. Photo / CATERS

"I kept Yorick, but he's shrunk a bit now. He's a bit dehydrated to about a third of his size. I might plan to have some kind of send-off for him, maybe a funeral or cremation.

"The pest control people are coming out next weekend and spraying the whole place and two metres around the property all around the outside. A lot of my friends have had their houses sprayed too since they found out what happened to me.

"I think I would say to people, for whatever it is, ring triple zero, for a spider bite or anything venomous. They might send you home with your tail between your legs and it's nothing, but it could just save your life if it is something venomous."

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