Episode 45: The nurse keeping explorers alive

Meet the nurse who explorers call when trouble arises in the field—whether it's avoiding a deadly tropical disease, dealing with toxic gasses from a volcanic eruption, or treating a snakebite on a remote island.

For 17 years, National Geographic nurse manager Karen Barry has advised journalists, photographers, and explorers on how to stay safe and healthy as they head out into the field.
Photograph by Rebecca Hale

For 17 years, nurse Karen Barry’s office at National Geographic headquarters has served as an important stop for journalists, photographers, and explorers in need of vaccines and medical advice before they set out on expeditions all over the globe. We’ll head down to the medical office to listen to her stories of helping explorers out in the field—and we’ll hear from one of her most frequent “customers,” Dangerous Encounters host Brady Barr, who over the years has dealt with multiple animal bites, parasites, and even a lost finger.

Listen on iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, and Amazon Music.


KAREN BARRY (NURSE): This is a National Geographic map of the world. 

PETER GWIN (HOST): We’re in a basement office at National Geographic headquarters and Karen Barry is standing in front of a huge map that stretches from floor to ceiling. Like a military general, she points out explorers deployed all over the planet and the unique hazards each might face in that part of the world.

KAREN BARRY: I have travelers in the Congo, right here on the border. And I’m very concerned about this and I want to know exactly where they were because over here, just across the border, we’ve got an Ebola outbreak.

GWIN: Karen is the nurse here at National Geographic. And her full-time job is making sure our explorers, photographers, writers, and all kinds of travelers are safe.

BARRY: So I might have 20 to 50 travelers in the field at any given time. 

GWIN: Right. That’s a lot of people to keep track of. 

BARRY: It’s a lot to keep track of. I remember a story: Someone was out in the Pacific and a volcano blew up and I emailed and I said, “How are you doing out there?” He said, “I didn’t know anybody knew where I was. I’m good.” 

GWIN: When something goes wrong, she’s on speed dial for every explorer. Probably her most famous “customer” is Brady Barr, a biologist who hosted a show on National Geographic WILD called Dangerous Encounters.

BRADY BARR (BIOLOGIST): Over the years at Geographic, I broke my right leg—broken right leg, broken right arm, broken right wrist, I lost my right index finger.

GWIN: Wait a minute, you lost your index finger?

BARR: Yeah, it’s still there. They put it back on. Croc bite, snake bite, monkey bite, brain worms. That was my closest call, was the brain worms. I picked those up in Cambodia.

I’m Peter Gwin, editor at large at National Geographic magazine, and you’re listening to Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week: When you’re a National Geographic explorer and you’ve got an assignment to go diving in, say, the Amazon river or hike up a remote volcano, who’s your first call? That would be Karen Barry, our resident nurse. 

We’ll hear how she prepares people for extreme assignments all over the planet where there is no medical aid. And we’ll meet her most injury-prone patient: herpetologist and alligator wrangler, Brady Barr.

That’s coming up right after the break.

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A lot of the stories we pursue at National Geographic are inherently dangerous. Things like photographing wildfires, climbing remote peaks in the Himalayas, or visiting countries with diseases like malaria and Ebola. Karen Barry has helped our explorers survive it all.

BARRY: Hi, I’m Karen Barry and I’m the nurse manager of National Geographic Society.

GWIN: OK and how long have you been here, Karen? I feel like you’ve always been here, at least in my tenure.

BARRY: I have been here for 17 years.

GWIN: Wow, 17 years. OK, so what was your first day at National Geographic like?

BARRY: The one thing I remember that really stands out was the emergency preparedness team came to talk to us about what would happen in the event of a fire. I almost died in a fire, so that meant a lot to me.

GWIN: Really? Wait a minute, you almost died in a fire?

BARRY: In nursing school. I was in a room next to where the fire originated. Someone had left an iron plugged in—it was an old iron. Caught the top of the ironing board, which caught the drapes and the room went up. I had just completed finals and so I had been up the entire night before. 

So I was out cold, sleeping on the bed, and my roommate came in to try and save me. And she said she kept calling my name, but I was in such a deep sleep. She grabbed me by the ankles and literally pulled me off the bed, and I hit the ground and that’s when I woke up. The room was full of black smoke and I had to crawl out and it was just very frightening. And so here all these nurses were standing in their pajamas out in the parking lot, and the whole room was going up in flames. 

But it left me, you know, with a fear of fire. And on that very first day, I remember them talking about what would happen in the event of a fire. I eventually joined that emergency preparedness team as part of National Geographic, and I look at it with a very critical eye because of what happened to me.

GWIN: Hearing your background as a nurse at a hospital, that sounds like a very hands-on, like, “Here’s the problem. It’s right in front of me. I can put my hands on it and fix it.” But what you do here is sort of prepare people to fix their own problems. 

BARRY: Yes, that’s exactly right.

GWIN: But does that feel weird? Like, you’re kind of far removed. So how do you adjust to that?

BARRY: So nurses are teachers. My plan of care is to keep them well and healthy while they’re working and in the field. And I measure that by the healthy returning traveler that comes back. It’s good to have a nurse on your staff.

GWIN: You know, a lot of the assignments that we send people to go do are just risky by the nature of what they’re doing. You know, we’re sending people to the Arctic, we’re sending people up high mountains. We just sent a crew into the Sandwich Islands going to hike up a volcano in the middle of nowhere.

BARRY: I saw that. I was helping with that, yeah.

GWIN: So, I mean, this is just not safe stuff by definition. How do you bring some level of safety to that?

BARRY: What I do is I actually put myself in their place. What is going to happen to me if I’m in that exact position? You could have 15-foot waves. They were going to be in some pretty rough ocean conditions. And then they’re hiking up this ice field, right? So what would happen if they fell onto hard ice? They could have concussions. They could have deep-wound lacerations. So I sent them out with bleed control kits, all right? And then they were up at the top of this volcano gathering gas samples and volcanic samples. So what could happen there? There could be a splash. So I sent them out with a massive burn kit.

GWIN: We’re asking people to do these really difficult things. And sometimes, you know, you get into a situation where you kind of feel like you’ve got to push through. The goal is just up ahead or you need to climb just a little higher. How do you tell an explorer where to find that line? 

BARRY: Right. So if they are in a malarious area and they’ve got a wicked headache and they’ve got fever and shaking chills, I’m telling them, “Game over. Get out. Malaria will kill you very quickly and we want you alive.” But I will talk to them about the signs and symptoms of any of the diseases that are risk and when to step back and say, “You know, your life is really in danger. Stop.” 

GWIN: Have you ever had to tell somebody, look, this is just too dangerous an assignment? Don’t do this. This is just not going to fly from a medical point of view.

BARRY: So that happened once during COVID.

GWIN: Once in 17 years.

BARRY: Because, see, my job is not to tell them it’s a no-go. But there was one assignment that that happened and I just said, “I’m not going to allow it. I’m putting my foot down. You’re not going.” This was at the start of COVID, and there was a whole group of employees that were ready to hop on a plane and go to Southeast Asia. Borders were closing. I was trying to get people out of Rome and bring them home. We had people in South Africa and I just said, “You’re not going.” How could you ever fathom a global pandemic this large, you know, and the effects that it had on the world? But that was the one time I just said, “Absolutely not. You’re not going.”

GWIN: Right. What’s the most dangerous activity you think we send people to do and how do you prepare for that?

BARRY: I think the mega-transits that we’ve done, like the Okavango Delta project. That was incredibly—

GWIN: So they’re actually like basically crossing the entire thing on boat or foot or whatever it is.

BARRY: Yes. They were in kind of like a dugout canoe. They were in areas that had not seen human beings forever.

GWIN: So what made that so dangerous? What was so dangerous about that particular assignment?

BARRY: There was no health care. There was nothing around. They were charged by hippos and almost crushed. There were elephants around them. There were crocs in the water.

GWIN: Yeah, what do you put in the kit for an elephant charging? What’s the elephant charging treatment?

BARRY: That’s when you rely on the expertise of our group, our travelers. They know when an elephant, the way the ears flap if they’re angry or just curious. There was one dugout canoe that was flipped over by an angry hippo, and they all ran to the land to just get to any kind of safety. And they made it out.

GWIN: Yeah. I’ve heard stories like that. That’s pretty harrowing. So I would imagine that you send people to a lot of places where there’s snakes, poisonous snakes—venomous snakes, I should say. 


GWIN: How do you prepare people for that kind of stuff?

 BARRY: OK. So recently I had a traveler going to India, to northern India, where there’s really some venomous snakes there. And what they ended up doing, they were traveling with a physician and she was able to get the anti-venom for those snakes in India where it’s manufactured. And she carried it with them because they were incredibly remote. They would not have been able to make it out and to health care in time.

GWIN: But that’s a physician. Would you send it with a traveler? Would you put it in the kit?

BARRY: No. You can die from the anti-venom, from an allergic reaction to the anti-venom. You really need to have your heart and lungs monitored and that to be given by a professional. It may take one dose; it could take 25 vials. You just don’t know. And it really needs to be monitored by a health care—so that’s absolutely not anything that I would do.

GWIN: Right. Wow. Do you lose sleep over people with snakebite potential? I mean, I just wonder, about—that’s one of the things that I think about a lot is getting bit by a snake somewhere out there.

BARRY: I do. I do lose sleep.

GWIN: You probably lose sleep for a lot of things, though.

BARRY: I do. That’s why I have bags under my eyes. 

GWIN: Coming up, we’ll meet someone who’s probably caused Karen to lose a lot of sleep: biologist Brady Barr, who was once attacked by a python in a cave on a remote island. We’ll hear that story after the break.

The medical suite at National Geographic looks like a standard doctor’s office. There are stethoscopes and blood pressure cuffs, an examination table with that weird paper they make you sit on, and a full-sized refrigerator filled with vaccines. 

BARRY: So we have our hepatitis A and B, polio, tetanus—

GWIN: But next to that refrigerator, there’s one thing that’s pretty unusual hanging on the wall.

(To Barry) So I think we wanted to ask you about this.

BARRY: OK. That’s the python that bit our traveler.

GWIN: My gosh. So basically, we’re holding a poster for Dangerous Encounters with Brady Barr, which was a National Geographic show. And it’s signed. What does this say, Karen?

BARRY: So it says, “Thanks for keeping me in one piece. You guys are my heroes. Brady Barr.”

GWIN: Yeah. So he’s holding this—first of all, he’s slimy in this cave. He’s like in a cave with a headlamp on. He’s slathered in mud.

BARRY: Bat guano.

GWIN: Or I don’t know, bat guano.

BARRY: That’s the bat guano. 

GWIN: And he’s holding, there’s a close up of him holding open the mouth of this snake—I guess this is the python—and a really massive set of fangs.

BARRY: You can see how that bit into his thigh and just ripped because—the teeth. Yeah, it was something. I will never forget it as long as I live.

GWIN: Yeah, I can see why.

For years, whenever I’d go to Nurse Karen’s office to get a flu or shot or a new vaccine for an assignment, I’d see that poster of Brady Barr facing down the python. It says, “This could be you!” But it also says, “Dude, this could be you.”

The story behind this image has grown into something of a legend around here. So I was excited to finally get to ask the man himself—the poster child of python bites—to tell me his version.

(To Barr) So tell me a little bit about how you start a career where you’re catching things like snakes and alligators.

BARR: You know, I was animal crazy and ended up getting a master’s and a Ph.D. working on alligators in the Everglades. So I’d go out at night in an airboat and cruise around Everglades National Park and capture big gators and then pump their stomachs. You give them—it’s called the hose-Heimlich maneuver—to get them to vomit up their stomach contents, just like you give a choking person. 

So I’d get these big old gators and give them the Heimlich and everything in their stomach comes out. And man, it was like Christmas every day of the week, seeing what’s coming out of the stomachs. But I took out a lot of film crews. Everybody wanted to go out with me and film what these alligators were eating and the procedure to get their stomach contents. National Geographic was one of them. And about the time I graduated, they said, “Hey, how about coming to work for us, being a resident scientist, travel all over the world, be on TV and we’ll pay you to do this.” And it didn’t take me long to say, “Yeah, sign me up.”

GWIN: OK. So, well, the iconic Brady Barr image sits in Nurse Karen’s examination room to this day, and it’s got this picture of you facing down a python. I want to hear from you, like, what happened in this cave with this python?

(Sounds from the Snake Palace in Dangerous Encounters)

BARR: It took place in a cave on a small island in Indonesia, a cave called the Snake Palace. 

As soon as you step into this cave, man, there’s one, there’s two, there’s three. There’s dozens and dozens. I mean, for whatever reason. And first time I got there, you know, I was excited, but also horrified. I mean, this place is, it’s the thing of nightmares. 

(Cave tape): This is just awful.

There’s bats, there’s scorpions, roaches all over the walls. 

(Cave tape): I don’t know for sure, but I’m assuming this is probably a health risk. 

The river of bat guano is crawling with maggots from dead bats and other animals. And then you throw in giant pythons. Oh, and it’s filled with poisonous gas. So, yeah, by the way. So you got to wear a poisonous— 

GWIN: Oh my gosh, this sounds horrible. 

BARR: Yeah, you got to wear poisonous gas detectors. And you’re in the cave and this alarm will go off and you look down and it says, at this level of CO2, you’ve got two minutes before irreparable brain damage occurs. So, not only we’re fighting for our lives, all the animals, when you got to really watch these pockets of dangerous gas and it’s a chamber of horrors, but it’s also a very, very special place for a guy like me.

GWIN: OK, so you make the questionable decision, if I can editorialize, Brady, to go into this place—what happens next?

BARR: So we continue into this cave and man, we’re finding pythons right and left. We’re putting these things called data loggers in the snakes, which monitor temperature and trying to find out why they’re using the cave. But we’re also looking for the world’s largest snake. 

We’re in the cave and it’s me and my cameraman and my producer. Looking over my shoulder, I’m talking to the camera about something. And then I glance back forward and I see this giant snake—

(Cave tape): Big snake, big snake, big snake!

BARR: Swimming across this river of guano and it’s headed for a crack in the wall. 

I immediately—cameras rolling, frantically swimming, wading, staggering through the river of bat guano, and I grab the snake by the tail. 

(Cave tape): Don’t let go of him!

Half of it gets inside the crack, and then it’s just a tug of war. And I mean, once we get this snake by the tail, man, it is not happy. It is really, really not happy. 

I’m looking for the head. And you know, I see it down in the crack. And as I say, it’s agitated. It is it is repeatedly striking and biting the rock wall in this crack. So we’re kind of teetering. You know, I’m worried I’m going to lose my balance and slip under the river of bat guano to never be seen again. I’m looking for the head.

(Cave tape): OK, can you pull him? Woah, woah, woah, here comes the head. Watch it! (screams)

Bang. This thing hits me. I mean, it hits me on the back of the leg. I mean, right on the left buttock. I scream and I’m not ashamed to say it. It hurts. It’s analogous to a shark attack. I mean, it is a vicious, bloody, open wound. 

So I’m screaming. It’s pandemonium. We still have the snake. I can’t remember how long it held on to me, but it finally releases. 

(Cave tape): Man, I got a bad bite to the leg. 

We were able to stagger towards shore from this guano river and actually subdued the snake. We got its head. We got it safely subdued. 

(Cave tape): Great, got him. (Whoops) We got him. Let’s go out. Let’s go out. 

So, my pants were just shredded. What was little—what was left of my pants, there wasn’t much. So I dropped my pants. And so now the real adventure begins. I’m in this horrible river of bat poo with a gaping, open wound on the front and back of my leg. We bag up the snake, we exit the cave, and there’s always a group of locals waiting around the cave. Just curious, you know, see what we’re doing, keep an eye on things. And they see me stagger out in my underpants and don’t know what to think. And tell you what, it takes a brave man to hike a couple of miles in his underpants in front of a big crowd of villagers with cameras rolling. Finally, we made it out and after several hours, made it to a—I don’t want to call it a hospital—an aid station. If you saw it, you’d say OK, it’s a gas station.

GWIN: Well, I want to hear how do you initiate that conversation with Karen? “OK. So here’s the deal, Karen. I was in a cave.”

BARR: She didn’t miss a beat. She was like, OK. She asked me a few questions. You know, how big are the wounds? Is it, you know, into the muscle? How much blood have you lost? You know, all these kind of important questions and then said, “OK, let us start working on logistics and we’ll get back to you.”

GWIN: Technically speaking, the goal is to avoid getting bitten by a snake in the first place. 

But, you know what, crazy things happen when you send people to look for dinosaurs in the Sahara, cross the Arctic on skis, or venture into the Snake Palace on Flores Island. And over her career, Karen Barry has pretty much seen it all.

(To Barry) What is the weirdest case that you’ve had? Is there one that just stands out as, like, the most bizarre? Like, I can’t believe I’m actually faced with these circumstances.

BARRY: This was Brady again. So this is—

GWIN: Brady has another one?

BARRY: Oh, there’s like several.

GWIN: Brady’s the whole show.

BARRY: He relocated a croc that was in Africa and it was eating the pe—literally eating them as they came down to wash or to gather their water.

GWIN: Oh, so this was like a problem croc in this area.

BARRY: It was a problem croc and Brady went down to relocate that croc and he trapped this croc. It caught him, captured him, and relocated him. And I said, when he came back, “Brady, how did you know that was the right croc?” He said, “Oh, Karen.” He said, “Gators don’t get that big just by eating plants.”

GWIN: Oh my gosh. 

BARRY: And then he showed me a picture and I couldn’t believe it.

GWIN: Wow.

BARRY: And it was just hilarious to hear his take about this.

GWIN: Hilarious slash terrifying.

BARRY: Terrifying. Exactly. Yeah, so that was probably one of the craziest darn things that Brady’s ever done. I know he lost an index finger when he was working in Costa Rica.

GWIN: This is not under your watch, though. He hasn’t lost any fingers while you’ve been his medical consultant. Let’s just put that on the record there. What’s the last thing that you tell an explorer before they go out in the field?

BARRY: That they’re not alone out there and we’re going to make sure that they come home safely.

GWIN: That’s pretty good, reassuring words to hear as you’re walking out the door, I’d say.

BARRY: Yeah.

GWIN: If you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe.

The snake that bit Brady Barr is actually a pretty amazing creature. The reticulated python is the longest snake species in the world. They are commonly measured at 20 feet long, longer than a giraffe is tall. 

And that’s not all. When isolated, female reticulated pythons are able to give virgin birth, a phenomenon biologists call parthenogenesis.

We’ve included a link to the story in our show notes.

Pythons aren’t venomous, but the venom of other snakes, as well as ants, treefrogs, cone snails, and many other creatures might just hold the key to the next medical breakthrough. 

All this and more can be found in our show notes. They’re right there in your podcast app.


This week’s Overheard episode is produced by Brian Gutierrez.

Our producers are Khari Douglas and Ilana Strauss. 

Our other senior producer is Jacob Pinter.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Our manager of audio is Carla Wills.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

Our photo editor is Julie Hau.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. 

Michael Tribble is the director of integrated storytelling. 

Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.

And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.


Want more? 

Here are some more tips from nurse Karen Barry for staying safe while traveling.

The snake that bit Brady Barr is an amazing creature. The reticulated python is the longest snake species in the world. They are commonly measured at 20 feet long, longer than a giraffe is tall. When isolated, female reticulated pythons are able to give virgin birth, a phenomenon biologists call parthenogenesis.

Also explore:

Pythons aren’t venomous, but the venom of other snakes, as well as ants, tree frogs, cone snails, and many other creatures might just hold the key to the next medical breakthrough.