Missionary Snakebite

The evening of May 17, 1978 was warm and humid, a perfect evening for snakes. My missionary companion and I trudged along a narrow jungle path in the coastal hills of Taiwan back to our bicycles, ready to head home for the day. We had just finished teaching the gospel to Mr. Wang and his wonderful Chinese family. They weren’t interested in hearing more from us at this time but in typical Oriental style they had listened to us graciously.

My companion trailed behind, enjoying the lights of Su Ao filtering through the trees. They glittered in the gathering dusk, far down the steep hillside. Within months, the streets of this tiny fishing village on Taiwan’s east coast would resound with the rumble of massive construction equipment transforming it into an important seaport, but for now it was peaceful and quiet.

I had just reached my bike when I heard a shaky voice behind me: “Elder Yocum, there’s a snake in the path.”

Calling 19 and 20-year-old men “Elder” strikes the Chinese as humorous. The term is used worldwide to indicate the priesthood office that these young men hold, and when paired with each missionary’s family name they serve as his name for his two years of full-time service. In Chinese, the word “elder” also indicates a level of gravity and respectability, traits that sometimes seem beyond the reach of early twenty-somethings. Although we got great respect for trying to live up to the title we were a long way from appearing elderly.

I sat my satchel of books down, turned around and peered into the dusk. Sure enough, there in the grass between us was a small green snake. It was about half the length of my forearm and had a triangular head. It was angling slowly down the path toward my companion, who was backing away from it.

“It looks like a garter snake,” I said.

Now, as anyone who has lived on a farm knows, garter snakes are harmless. When you find one in your way you can easily snap-grab its tail, pick it up, whirl it around a few times and let it go, watching it sail safely away. No harm done and you can get on with your work. So I wasn’t worried.

“Why don’t we try to grab it?” my companion asked.

I looked at him. From his nervous appearance it seemed clear to me that when he said “We” he meant “You, Elder Yocum. You look dumb enough.”

It sounded like fun.

I hunched down, reached my left hand forward, and tiptoed toward it. The snake seemed to ignore me.

Fingers outstretched, I bunched my muscles and held my breath. “You’re mine!” I thought. I clenched my teeth and snapped out my hand.

There was a flash of movement in the grass. A moment later I stood and looked wonderingly at my hand. Two drops of blood beaded my index finger.

I had no idea that anything could move so fast. Crawling away from me on the narrow path, surrounded by grass, this snake had heard me coming, waited for me to strike, turned, bit my finger, and turned away again, all before I could reach it. I looked down and watched its tail disappear lazily into the jungle. I was sure I heard some sniggering hiss that could be translated, “Amateur!” It was probably yawning.

My finger started to throb and grow numb. My companion came up to me and peered at it in the fading light. “What happened?” he asked.

“It bit me,” I said.

He looked at it again. The finger was starting to swell. “That looks bad,” he said. “Do you think it could be poisonous?”

Our eyes grew wide. We ran back to Mr. Wang’s home. Muttering and shaking his head, he tied a tourniquet around my finger and told us to get to the hospital quick. We ran to our bikes, tied down our satchels, and flew down the path.

Or tried to. Missionary bicycles back then were heavy and cheap. Painted black, they looked like they had been made out of cast iron. Ugly though they were, they were tough and could be easily repaired. We depended on them to get us around every day. That evening we depended on them a lot.

With the steep hillside on the left and the valley to our right, we careened down the narrow path. The darkness was nearly complete. My companion, who I later learned was terrified of snakes, tried to ride beside me, urging me to stay calm, warning that a fast pulse would speed the venom’s spread. I appreciated his advice, especially since we had to stop twice to pick him out of the ditch when the path got too narrow.

After about 30 minutes we pulled up at the hospital in Su Ao. By this time my finger was swollen and black. The staff told us that they had nothing with which to treat snake bites and directed us to another hospital. We climbed back onto our bikes and sped off.

At the next hospital the nurses laughed at us. I guess we did look pretty silly, all sweaty and covered with dirt from pulling my companion out of the ditch. Their doctor said he could do nothing for us and directed us to the hospital in Luodong, another twenty minutes away. They called for a taxi and watched us leave. They were still laughing.

During this time I remained unusually calm. I even made jokes. That helped my poor companion, whose composure slipped more than once. I simply had faith that I was in the hands of the Lord. I didn’t want to die or lose my finger but we were doing our best and could do nothing more. I prayed and left the rest up to God.

We got to the hospital in Luodong at about 9:30 that evening and were immediately surrounded by professionals. The doctor spoke fluent English and knew what to do. He gave me shots in my arm, hip and finger and then made two deep incisions at the knuckle and squeezed all the blood out.

While he worked he asked about the incident. After hearing my story he said that I had been bitten by a bamboo snake, one of Taiwan’s most poisonous, whose bite is often fatal. After working on me and injecting me with anti-venom, which also is sometimes fatal, he sewed me up and released the tourniquet. His staff bandaged the wound, which now looked like four-day-old hamburger, and told me to lie down and relax. He predicted that I would either be dead within in a few hours or in the hospital for six weeks in agony. And then he left.

I felt fine. Or I did until the pain medication wore off.

After several minutes the staff asked us to move into the waiting area and let them know if we had any problems; they needed my room. An hour later they told us to go home and come back the next day for a checkup. We returned to our apartment in Su Ao and, after a sleepless night, got up at 5am and started the day.

Later that afternoon the doctor examined me and expressed surprise that I was so unaffected. At length he concluded that I had not seen the snake clearly and had been bitten by some other species. I had been very fortunate. We went home and got some much-needed rest.

All through this experience I had remained calm, even while picking my companion out of the ditch. In my mind I had seen very clearly the story of Paul being bitten by a viper in Acts chapter 28. Onlookers thought he was going to die but he shook off the snake and felt no harm. I also remembered the promises of protection for the Lord’s servants against serpents in Mark 16:18. Although there is no promise of protection against the willfully foolish, I had been a full-time servant of the Lord and felt assured that His promises applied. I was very grateful that they did. I was able to finish my mission and return to my family 7 months later, fully healed.

I did pick up a nickname, though. The local Chinese laughed at my story and my big bandage and called me “the dumb missionary”. I have never picked up a snake since.

This story retells an incident that happened during my service as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have done my best to stay as close to the facts as possible, my primary source of information being my 1978 missionary journal. Except for myself, I have left out or changed the names of persons and facilities which might be embarrassed by this account. I have retained the names of the towns involved. I’ve been asked to document the story many times; I hope you enjoyed it.