Deadly Even in Death

David Graves, a young wildlife biologist on a hunting lease north of Raymondville, shot and killed a rattlesnake recently, but the rattlesnake struck back nearly killing him.

After shooting the rattler with bird shot and practically blowing off the snakes head, Graves put his boot on the twitching reptile and took out his knife severing the head from the snake's body. "We were going to save the snake and tan the hide, so I went and threw it in the jeep. The head was still in the road, and I was just going to push it off in the brush, and at first I kind of kicked at it a little bit. I don't know what possessed me to do it, but I picked it up. There were only a few inches of skin left attached to the head, and I went and picked it up with my left hand, and it reached around and bit me."

"My first reaction was I just jerked away as fast as I could, and of course a few choice words were said. As soon as it happened, I screamed out, I got bit! I got bit! Get me to the lodge right now. Let's go."

Graves was not waiting for his two companions to take charge. "I actually jumped in the driver's seat of the jeep. I made it probably about a minute or a minute and half up the road before my hands and feet started burning like they had been set in fire. When I felt that, I concentrated on looking forward but my eyes started seeing colors, yellow and orange, and the light got real bright. My head started spinning, like when you are coming off a major hangover."

At this point in his narration I breezily interjected, "Oh, so this was worse than the bite of Jose Cuervo."

Perhaps, not fully appreciating my humor, Graves responded with a concise, "Much worse."

"I got out of the driver's seat and got in the passenger seat. It was only about another three or four minutes to camp, but by the time we got there I was out of it."

It is usually about a 30 minute drive back to Highway 77 from the lodge, but the trip was made in record time. "On the way out I remember throwing up and there was a point in time where they say I stopped breathing."

An ambulance met Graves at the gate on 77 and rushed him to a waiting helicopter in Raymondville. He was whisked away to Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen where he spent the next five days, four of which required intensive care.

"The snake was about a four and a half or five footer, and they told me later at the hospital that I had a moderate to extreme bite. I think they said I had six bags of antivenin." Each bag contains six bags of antivenin so Graves had 36 vials throughout his hospitalization.

Graves is out of the hospital and recovering. "They tell me I should have complete use of my hand. My arm still has bruising on it. My whole arm is sore. My fingers are coming back to normal. My palm is still real swollen. There is still a lot of necrosis on my thumb. There is still a lot of sluffing off and swelling."

"There are several records in the books of people being bitten by decapitated snakes heads, even a death or two in the records," said Doctor Pat Burchfield, Herpetologist and Director of the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville. "It is just a contraction of muscles reacting to being grabbed by the piece of neck that was left. Rattlesnakes are reptiles. They are cold blooded animals, and they have muscle reactions for a period of up to probably a couple of hours."

"I had a friend years ago that was working at a laboratory, and they were sacrificing snakes for research," Dr. Burchfield said. "They decapitated a snake, and it went thru the air and clamped on his hand in a very similar experience. So if you are driving down the highway across the King Ranch and you see a run over rattlesnake and you think, 'Oh boy,' I would really like to have that hide or that rattle and you go running up there and you grab it, there is a possibility you could be bitten."

Texas is home to a variety of venomous snakes including the copperhead, cottonmouth, various rattlesnakes and the coral snake. However, none of these snakes are normally aggressive toward humans unless threatened.

"It is a well known fact that most people that are snake bitten are trying to either kill or capture the snake," Dr. Burchfield said. "If they were to leave the rattlesnakes out there to eat rats and mice, the things they are supposed to do, and leave them alone most bites wouldn't happen."

Between 7,000 and 8,000 people are bitten nationwide each year by venomous snakes, but fewer than a dozen result in fatalities. "The main thing is to stay calm and keep the extremity below the level of the heart," said Dr. Robert Wright, DO, FAAEM. Wright is an emergency room physician at Valley Baptist and treats several snakebite victims each year. "The whole idea is to limit the activity, limit the blood flow to the extremity."

"The key to it is to get to the nearest emergency room department as quickly as possible," Dr. Wright said. Experts agree that it is not advisable to waste time with tourniquets, which can be quite dangerous if not used properly. They also warn against cutting around the bite and attempting to suck out the venom as an incision is likely to cause infection or excessive bleeding. There is little use in attempting to suck out the venom as it has properties that spread it quickly from the bite. Don't apply heat and don't apply ice.

Your car keys are the best snakebite kit, and the quicker you use them the better, as only antivenin can neutralize the rattlers toxins. However, a helicopter rescue could be a lifesaver if you are in the remote ranch country of deep South Texas. Rattlesnake venom is hemotoxic and fast acting. It can cause major internal bleeding and massive tissue damage if not treated promptly.

"Time is tissue, and we want to get the patient to the hospital as quickly as we possibly can," said Rene Perez, Director of Patient Transportation with Valley AirCare. Helicopter evacuation of snake bite victims is available thru Valley AirCare within a 150 mile radius of Harlingen, and in most instances travel time to a ranch site is no more than 20 minutes.

Many ranchers and hunting lease operators already have emergency plans in place with Valley AirCare complete with GPS coordinates, detailed location descriptions and landing site selections. "If there is a ranch out there that feels they need to get catalogued please contact our office at 1-800-679-0911," Perez said.

David Graves hopes to return to work soon with a hard found understanding of the danger in dealing with rattlesnakes. In the future, if he feels he needs to kill another rattler that is too close to the lodge, he won't try and pick it up with his bare hand, even if the head is severed. "I guess I just didn't know it could happen. It made me realize a lot of things. I am going to do things a lot different now, I guarantee that."

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore