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Surviving a Snake Bite

Troy Madsen

"Ryan, don't move."

It's one of my most poignant memories as a child: my younger brother, Ryan, crouched at the side of a trail, picking berries, with a coiled rattlesnake looking him in the face.

My dad had brought us to Ogden, Utah, to explore his old stomping grounds. Part of that including looking up an old childhood friend, Les, who joined him and his three boys for a hike to Malen's Peak.

As we neared the upper section of the hike, Ryan, being the adventurous six-year-old he was, went ahead on the trail. Red berries on the side of the trail caught his eye, and he bent over to pick them.

And that's when we came upon him, and my dad very quietly ordered him to stay still.

Ryan showed incredible composure for a child staring at the face—and fangs—of a diamondback rattlesnake much longer than he was tall.

My dad instructed Ryan to very slowly move backwards. Ryan inched back away from the snake, that hum of the rattle creating a deafening blur over our scared silence.

Ryan made it several feet back from the snake, then inched back down the trail toward us. Once he was safely out of leaping distance from the coiled viper, Les picked up a rock and threw it. Fortunately, the snake opted for the "flight" approach to the fight or flight response, and scurried down the mountain.

In the years since our snake encounter, I've had many nightmares about coiled rattlesnakes on the side of trails. And I've wondered: what would we have done had Ryan been bitten by a snake?

I recalled a reel-to-reel movie in an elementary health class in which we were instructed on treating a snake bite. The instructor cut into the fang marks, drew blood, and sucked out the venom. I regularly replayed this image in my mind, mentally preparing myself for my response should we again find ourselves in that situation.

I later ran across a modification to the "cut and suck" approach to the snakebite—a vacuum cup which could be sealed to the bite, after the cuts were made, to withdraw the blood. This was apparently a response to the obvious hygienic issues related both to blood in a person's mouth and saliva in a person's severed arm.

And, wandering through the sporting good sections of a retail store recently, I ran across that handy snake bite kit again, and those memories flooded back. The kit came complete with a small scalpel for making the incision, antiseptic rinse, and a tourniquet.

Despite that sense of empowerment that health class video may have given me over my fear of another rattlesnake encounter, the truth of venomous snake bites is that nothing we do in the wilderness actually works. Cutting does nothing but cause pain, increase the victim's heart rate, and speed the venom's circulation through their system. A tourniquet won't slow the venom's flow. Antiseptic rinse might clean a little dirt off the skin, but does nothing for the bite. And that handy suction attachment just leaves a nice welt on the arm.

Unfortunately, the only thing you can really do if bitten by a rattlesnake is try to stay calm. Call 911 if you have cell access, and if you're in a remote area, they might be able to send a helicopter to get you to a hospital. If it's your child who's bitten, try to carry them. When you get your heart rate up, it just spreads that venom through the body more quickly.

Which is why cutting the skin doesn't make much sense. It hurts, your heart rate goes up, the venom spreads, and your buddy just has a mouthful of your blood. Not a good situation.

Once you get to a hospital, you may receive IV fluids if your blood pressure is low, and, if you're showing signs of a reaction to the bite, will receive the antivenom—the most effective treatment for a venomous snake bite. Just stay calm, try to call for help and/or get out of the area as quickly as possible, and get to a hospital.

Should I find myself in Ryan's position one day—facing my childhood fear, face-to-face—I'll just hope my cell phone works at 11,000 feet in the remote Wasatch Mountains. And I'll try to take my thoughts to a happier place to slow that venom as it courses through my veins.

Just don't try to cut into those fang marks as I drift away on a Hawaiian beach. Because the last thing I want is to die from a snakebite as someone slices into my arm with their rusty pocketknife. That would just add insult to injury.