Doctor blame "all kinds of mystery skin lesions and gangrenous sores on the bite of a non-existent spider," said Rod Crawford, Burke's curator of arachnids.
"[It's] one of the commoner kinds of medical malpractice, and people have actually died because they were treated for a spider bite they did not have, rather than for the far more serious condition they did have," he said.
The nocturnal and fragile spider, as its name suggests, is shy and seldom encounters humans, according to a 2002 report in American Medical News. Bites can occur when a person rolls onto it in bed.
Injury caused by spider venom has been recognized in the United States since the 1950s, according to a 2005 report in the New England Journal of Medicine, which suggested physicians are too quick to point blame, even in areas where they are rare or nonexistent.
"The perceived threat of spider bites far exceeds the risk," wrote authors Dr. David L. Swanson and Richard S. Vetter, who say many other dermatologic conditions are far more dangerous.
"Any small infection in a diabetic can turn into that she had," said toxicologist Casavant. "I wouldn't assume it was a spider."
Experts say the brown recluse spider is often cited in medical and pharmaceutical school training, and doctors are often fooled.
"We actually get calls about this kind of spider bite," said Casavant, who is director of the national poison control center. "A lot come from doctors who think it's the spider even though it's not possible in that part of the country."
"Part of the trouble is doctors are using what they were taught 20 years ago and we now know there is a long list of things," he said. "In the absence of the spider, it's probably something else."
These types of infections can arise when patients have metabolic, endocrine or autoimmune conditions, but more often they are caused by the superbug MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus).
"In pharmacy school, everybody has a story: That the brown recluse spider likes to hide in the pockets of long coats in dark places and you reach into the pocket of the coast you haven't worn and get bit," said Paul Doering, professor at the College of Pharmacy at the University of Florida.
"But it should be MRSA-phobia and not arachnophobia," he said.
Doering, who did research on the spider as part of a lawsuit against a pharmacist, said that any infection that becomes systemic is cause for concern.
"If an irritation or inflammation gets progressively worse over 24 hours, it doesn't matter what the origin is," said Doering.
"With skin infections today, especially in the world of resistant organisms, you shouldn't take a chance," he said. "The first sign of something, when you feel poorly and there is a red lesion, go to the ER or the doc-in-box."
Such was the case with Franklin, who had three pimple-like spots on her breast that turned to reddened lumps. Within a week, she was crippled with pain and her breast swelled so large, she couldn't get into her bra.
On April 9, she was so alarmed and in so much pain, she called her sister.
"A week before she ended up in the hospital, she didn't realize what it was and started getting sick," said Dapaa, a mother of three and a grandmother. "I was so worried about her and sat four or five hours until the surgery was over."