[Story by Vianca Cao; Video by Jade Nunes]
As the blazing summer months quickly approach and the temperatures rise above 90 degrees even in the spring, evidence of rattlesnakes can be seen and heard throughout the Sonoran Desert. Here are tips from the experts, including those who have been bitten once only to become twice shy:
Do not test a rattlesnake’s patience when its rattle shakes. And if you do accidentally get bitten, expect to spend more time recovering than most people assume. And it’s probably going to cost you more than you think. (Here’s a link to the rattlesnakes site of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum).
The Arizona Poison & Drug Information Center treated five snakebite victims in 2013 and two bite victims were treated earlier this month. These victims represent a small percentage of an even bigger issue, as venomous snakes bit about 8,000 Americans in the past year.
A variety of different species of rattlesnakes are present in Arizona, all of them venomous, according to the Phoenix Herpetological Society. A bite may result in hours of excruciating pain and can potentially drain thousands of dollars from the unfortunate victim’s wallet. According to the experts, a person is more likely to be bitten by a rattlesnake in Arizona than in any other state
“A victim of a rattlesnake bite can expect to experience tremendous pain in their body and should be rushed to a hospital immediately,” said Russ Johnson, president of the Phoenix Herpetological Society, an organization that even has a “Reptile Encounters” summer camp for kids. “The venom injected into a rattlesnake’s victim is quite fatal, as the venom itself will begin to destroy blood cells and tissue, causing muscles, ligaments and tendons to deteriorate.”
Anecdotally, it’s frequently assumed that people who are bitten by rattlesnakes through a combination of carelessness, often associated with intoxication.
“About 98.8 percent of rattlesnake bites can be prevented due to the fact that most bite victims are composed of males under the influence of alcohol,” Johnson said. “Getting bitten by a snake doesn’t say much about you, since the brain of a snake is about the size of a pea.”
Not every expert thinks that reckless boozy behavior is the major culprit, though. Carelessness certainly is major factor, but so is plain old bad luck. Dr. Keith Boesen, director of the Arizona Poison & Drug Information Center, said he has seen several hundred bite victims find their way to the hospital not just from recklessness in deliberately taunting or otherwise confronting a snake, but increasingly from plain old bad luck.
“The amount of people bitten by rattlesnakes due to sheer carelessness used to be about 75 percent, which has now shifted in recent years to about 50 percent,” Boesen said. “It’s quite common to encounter a rattlesnake and be bitten while doing yard work or walking around bushes or shaded areas.”
Dr. John M. Smith, a retired obstetrician-gynecologist, avid golfer, and one-time bite victim, underwent the painful and extensive medical process needed to treat a rattlesnake bite. While participating in a golf tournament at Ventana Canyon in 2002, Dr. Smith found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, thanks to a simple stray golf ball.
“I reached down to pick up a golf ball among some bushes and I didn’t notice the rattlesnake that was hiding nearby,” Smith said. “Before I knew it, the rattlesnake had bitten me in the hand and I was being rushed back to the clubhouse while someone called 9-1-1.”
Without panicking, Smith’s main concern was to get to the nearest hospital immediately, though he figured it would be a quick, routine treatment. On his way, he began to experience the throttling pain and side effects caused by rattlesnake venom. “The initial snakebite didn’t alarm me, but the pain following it became quite severe,” Smith said. “When I arrived at the hospital, I found out that the snake had injected venom when I was bitten, causing a severe wound in my hand and intense swelling.”
Dr. Smith ended up spending two days in intensive care, and a lot more days in recovery.
The venom packs a surprising punch, and can cause serious damage to muscle and tissue structure, as well as respiratory problems and the breakdown of blood cells.
“There are about 18 different species of rattlesnakes, each with different types of rapidly evolving venom,” said Matthew Goode, a research scientist at the University of Arizona School of Natural Resources and the Environment. “The venom itself is a protein that snakes produce and can be quite deadly as it targets the victim’s muscles, rendering them immobile.”
In the event of a rattlesnake bite, the best thing to do is to remain calm and to get to the nearest hospital to be treated with antivenin, experts say.
“Other than removing jewelry or articles of clothing that may restrict blood flow before the wounded area starts to swell, there is no first aid that can be administered before reaching a hospital,” Boesen said. “Stories, myths and theories such as the use of electricity to shock the venom out, icing the wound, putting pressure on the wounded area and cutting and sucking the venom out make for good movies and books, but are terrible advice regarding how to treat a rattlesnake bite.”
Antivenin is effective in treating venomous infections from all species of rattlesnakes, and hospitals stock it. According to Boesen, this particular treatment is produced by taking venom from rattlesnakes and injecting it into other animals so they can develop antibodies to the venom. The blood from these animals is then extracted, cleaned and produced as antivenin for injection into a bite victim.
As essential as this life-saving substance may be, antivenin and medical treatment come with a heavy price, as an average patient requires at least 12 vials of antivenin — at about $2,200 per vial. The high cost of medical treatment has caused some with little or no health insurance to choose between having their money or life sucked out of them.
“Whether you have insurance or not, the question is not whether you can afford to come into the hospital, but how long you’re willing to wait before the infection spreads or causes you to die,” Boesen said. “The best thing to do is to get to get treated at the hospital and worry about the cost later.”
The expense of antivenin and medical treatment for snakebites has become a widespread problem around the world. According to a recent New York Times article “The Killers Underfoot,” the price of antivenin is far beyond the financial reach of those living in poor rural areas of Africa, southern Asia and Central and South America. In recent years it has been reported that about five million people are bitten by snakes each year and as many as 94,000 people die while about 400,00 are left permanently disabled.
As alarming as these statistics are, this public health issue continues to be neglected.
“While recovering in the hospital, I received a book about a man who had gotten bitten by snake, survived and then traveled around the world to learn more about other types of snakes and their venom,” Smith said. “I learned that being bitten by snakes is a worldly problem and is a gruesome experience that I would never want anyone else to have to experience.”
On the golf course or anywhere else where a rattlesnake might lurk, Smith said he is much more snake-aware outdoors, especially in the season when rattlesnakes stir as summer looms.
“My advice to anyone is to watch where you are walking and be aware of your surroundings,” Smith said. “But on the chance that you do get bitten, just stay calm and don’t think twice about getting yourself to a hospital.”