CENTRAL, La. – Fire ants are the scourge of the Louisiana lawn, but their venomous stings can be as dangerous as those from bees, ants or wasps. Patrick Dodson, 13, and his mother, Donna Dodson, learned that one Sunday afternoon in March while doing yard work at their Central home.
Patrick Dodson fetched a bag of mulch made from a tree blown down by Hurricane Gustav in September. It tore open as he headed to the flower beds, and his leg was covered in hundreds of ants.
"Once I noticed them, I kind of freaked out, and that's when they started biting me," he said. "It didn't really hurt until 10 minutes afterward."
Most people call them bites, and fire ants often do anchor themselves with a bite — but it's the sting that hurts. And, unlike bees or wasps, each ant can sting many times.
Patrick's mother washed the ants off his leg, applied an antihistamine cream and sent her mother, Alice Reine, to the store for a liquid antihistamine.
But 20 minutes later, Patrick came to her with a flushed face and swollen lips and nose. Donna Dodson took him to an after-hours clinic, where he passed out while she was filling out paperwork.
He came to in the exam room, got a shot and passed out again. The clinic called an ambulance to take him to the emergency room.
"The venom from the ants just shut his body down," Donna Dodson said. "It just quit. It was just too much."
Doctors at Baton Rouge General Medical Center gave him intravenous fluids to flush out the venom. His blood pressure kept dropping. Donna Dodson was sent out of the room as her son went on life support. His heart stopped beating twice.
"A couple of hours later, they told me he was in the ICU," Donna Dodson said. "They couldn't guarantee he would make it through the night."
Donna Dodson let Patrick's two older brothers, both Marines who have served in Iraq, know how ill he was. The American Red Cross flew them to Baton Rouge.
"When you have two in the military, you pray at night that they'll come home to you," Donna Dodson said. "You never think the one you have at home would be the one you lose. You never think of the baby at home."
In three days, Patrick Dodson was weaned off the ventilator. By Friday, he was back home.
The Dodsons aren't certain how many stings Patrick had. A hospital nurse stopped counting at 210, Donna Dodson said.
The venom from ants is in the same classification as other stinging insects, such as bees, wasps and yellow jackets, said Dr. Melinda Frantz, director of the pediatric intensive care unit at Baton Rouge General Medical Center.
About 9.3 million people are stung by ants each year, and most just get itchy bumps, Frantz said.
She said only 1 to 2 percent have a more generalized reaction, such as wheezing, dizziness, fever, vomiting and diarrhea. And of those few, only about 5 percent go into anaphylactic shock, a severe allergic reaction that can be deadly, she said.
"It's a very small percentage," she said.
But it needs a doctor immediately, either at the office or in an emergency room, she said, and people known to be allergic to insect stings should carry an epinephrine injection with them.
People who die from insect stings do so within 30 minutes to four hours. "We're talking about a very short window," she said.
In Patrick Dodson's case, the number of stings may have caused this reaction — but his immune system now could overreact again from far fewer stings, he said.
Donna Dodson said her son now keeps an epinephrine injection with him at all times in case of another ant sting. Patrick Dodson said he has been stung since.
But overall, things are getting back to normal.
"When somebody gets bit by ants, you're like, 'It's ants. Do I really have to go?' You start second guessing yourself — 'Am I overreacting?"' Dodson said. "They told me here if I had waited 45 minutes longer than I did, he wouldn't have made it."