My family got this email from a family friend in Alabama and it made me reflect on my brother’s rattlesnake bite a few years ago and the trauma the family went through during the long hours at the hospital over the next week. It reads:
To all my friends who hunt, camp, or spend time in the woods:
The pic below is of my left leg after being struck by a 6ft timber rattler today while turkey hunting. The snake bit through my hunting pants and Muck Boots (I usually wear snake boots when turkey hunting, but could not locate them this morning). The initial bite felt like being hit in the calf by a baseball bat at full swing followed by excruciating pain radiating out from the bite wounds. Fortunately, I carry a snakebite extractor kit in my turkey vest, and was able to remove the majority (I guestimated 3-4 cups) of the venom-contaminated blood. Following the instructions from the kit, I kept my heart rate down as best I could, and slowly limped the 200 yds to my vehicle, and was able to drive myself to the hospital which, thank the good Lord, was about 20 min away. Once their, I was administered the anti-venom, antibiotics, etc. The ER Doc told me that based on the distance between the two fang punctures and their diameter and depth, if I had not used the venom extractor kit, I would have died before I ever made it to my truck. So, if you do not already own one, I want you to go to a sporting goods store and purchase a venom extractor kit ASAP. I bought mine at academy and it was around $10.00. I would urge you to buy a couple. Put one in each vehicle in your household, in your hunting or hiking pack, etc. ,,,, they are about the size of a bar of soap and can literally save your life or someone you love. Please don’t blow this off. Do it tomorrow!!!!
I am spending one night (hopefully) in the hospital, and may require some minor surgery to remove any damaged tissue from the poison, but that is a far cry from losing my leg or passing through the pearly gates!!!!
Respectfully, Your Friend,
The use of a snakebite kit has become a source of controversy over the years. I used to carry one on camping trips as a kid and when hunting the Hell Hole Swamp alone while in dental school. I wondered what the most recent thoughts were on the subject so I did a little research. Until the last few years, and after a 2002 article in the New England Journal of Medicine refuted it, the recommended treatment for a snake bite was the “cut and suction” method.
Most new snakebite kits, including the Sawyer Kit, contain a suction syringe that is far more effective than your mouth in removing venom. The kit does not contain a razor for cutting, as that is now longer considered necessary or safe with the new syringe type devices.
The American Red Cross supports the suction device method, but only if the victim cannot make it to the hospital within 30 minutes. Do not apply ice or a tourniquet to the area. If you cut off the circulation you can cause the loss of the limb or lower the victim’s blood pressure to the point of killing them. It is okay if you put a loose-fitting towel or band above or below the wound to limit the movement and spread of the venom to proximal tissue but you MUST be able to slip a finger under the band and observe the swelling to loosen it when appropriate.
As previously stated, the first consideration is how far you are from help. Most snakebite victims get to the hospital or treatment center within a 20-minute to 2-hour time frame. This is adequate to prevent a large amount of tissue damage. Anti-venom is the only “cure” for snakebite. Identify or take the “dead” snake to the hospital so that the doctors will know what type of anti-venom to give you. This is important but don’t risk another bite or waste time looking for the offending serpent. Stay calm and keep the injured limb, assuming it is a limb, below heart level. Walk slowly to your car and then drive it responsibly if you are alone. The best piece of snakebite medicine? Your cell phone. Call for help before you get sick and move toward their expected arrival point or a place you can be easily found.
Some bites are “dry” bites. The snake wants to conserve its venom for prey and may just bite because it is scared, or as a warning. So if the arrival of help is expected to be a while:
* Keep the victim calm. Keep the affected area below heart level.
* Use a suction device if you have one.
* Remove rings or other constricting items and restrict movement of the area.
* If the bite begins to swell or change colors, it is a venomous bite.
* Monitor the vital signs for shock. If this occurs you may have to raise the feet above the heart and cover the person with a blanket. I know I just said keep the affected area below heart level, but we are now concerned with losing the victim to shock, not venom.
* Get or call medical help.
* Identify the snake. Remember a dead snake can bite for up to an hour.
Getting back to the suction devices like the Sawyer snakebite kit: The company advises leaving it on for 10 to 15 minutes to extract venom. Many experts say this is too long and will damage tissue unnecessarily. Many videos now show leaving the suction syringe on for 30 seconds at a time to be the norm.
Studies on pigs have found that these suction devices may only remove 1 percent to 2 percent of venom in deep muscle wounds. The manufacturer doesn’t dispute this on deep muscular areas like the thigh, but state that they believe these devices work well on superficial wounds and those in less muscular areas like the hands and feet.
Another skeptic is Dr. Robert S. Hoffman, director of the New York City Poison Control Center. He says the jury is still out but he carries one of the Sawyer kits in his backpack while on hiking trips. Most everyone agrees that thoroughly cleansing the wound to remove as many bacteria is essential. Many of these kits do have antiseptic wipes, which are useful.
Obviously prevention is worth a pound of cure. Don’t get bitten. Follow basic rules while trapezing around the spring woodlands.
* Wear high-cut boots.
* Watch where you put your hands and feet. Don’t sit on logs or pick up wood without carefully examining underneath. Don’t just plop down at the base of trees in the dark or back into dense shrub when turkey hunting. A bite on the back, crotch, or rear end could be very serious.
* Don’t poke, pick up or harass a snake. Over two-thirds of snakebites happen to people who intentionally mess around with the reptiles.
I like snakes. I don’t run over them on highways. I think the copperhead and the canebreak rattlesnake are fascinating and beautiful. I kill them only if they have taken up residence in places I frequent near the farm or home.
I actually learned more from our friend’s email. Muck boots don’t stop rattlesnake fangs. I have been using muck boots, which are made from thick neoprene, rather than my snake boots because they are much quicker to get on in the early morning hours when I run late getting to the turkey roost. I assumed that my heavy cotton pants and the thick neoprene would offer good protection against a snakebite. Obviously, I was wrong.
Rubber boots commonly used by Southern swamp hunters for crossing water and scent control during deer hunting are no substitute for a heavy pair of snake-proof boots. Now that it’s warm and I have thought about it, I will stop, take more time and zip up my snake boots. Sitting in the woods waiting for help while my snake boots are home by the back door would seem a little silly now, wouldn’t it? Oh yeah, don’t tell anyone. I ordered two Sawyer snakebite kits online yesterday.
* John Rheney has been writing his outdoors column exclusively for The Times and Democrat for more than two decades.