I don’t ever remember seeing many copperheads when I was a girl in Arkansas. Certainly there were plenty of rattlesnakes and I saw my fare share of water moccasins in the sloughs and borrow pits when fishing with my dad. But down in deep Texas, all along the Gulf Coast and upwards, copperheads abound.
They are quite beautiful and menacing, all rusty and patterned and triangle headed. Generally you find them curled in a ball eager to blend into the bottom of a rose bush or up against two rocks for which they must know instinctively they are difficult to see. Of all the pit vipers, they score the lowest on the venom scale. That is not to say they are harmless. I am one of the 8000 people in the US who is bitten yearly by a copperhead. I have some information on the topic.
Yesterday, a full day planned, my morning would be spent at the farm. I had my list. Going in and out the back door of the old farmhouse, an unlikely event was about to occur, my left big toe and an adult copperhead were going to have an encounter. I say that because as many times as I have rummaged in wood piles, pulled weeds out of rock lined flower beds, and waded through thigh high grass I have yet to be bitten. And I have seen copperheads, coiled and then slithering away often. Of all the opportunities, its strange that our meeting would take place on the threshold of my back door, for there, unnoticed by me, lay an adult copperhead. I imagine he had tried to avoid my repeated forays near his path on his way to wherever he was trying to get. But in his cold-blooded brain, in the heat sensing pit between his nostril and eye, he registered I was a heat emanating entity, far bigger than any rat, who kept returning.
His viper spit loaded with venom, his snake brain calculating ‘not food, just enough for escape’, he economized his dose. As my croc sandaled toe came near enough, he struck.
Instantly, I felt it and in that same instant looking down I saw him slither east into the pine needles heaped at the sidewalk. One little drop of blood, near the outside of the toenail, oozed from the precise puncture. His injected spit started a whole suite of chemical reactions inside my foot. The venom of a pit viper is full of proteins bent on two things: immobilizing its prey and then making it easily digestible. It does so by honing in on blood cells and literally blowing them apart.
A few more drops of blood and what at the very first seemed like a bad bee sting was hurting. Quite a bit actually.
The ambulance attendant asked me if I wanted to go’ here’ or ‘there’.
“Which ones got anti venom,” I ask.
“I don’t know.” he says.
“You’re pretty calm”, he says.
Not after that.
“Most people don’t die from copperhead bites,” he continues, and then to the driver, “Don’t waste anytime getting to Bryan.”
While he and I are discussing my fate, my lymph system is transporting the snake spit. Conduits, not quite vessels and only going one direction, towards the heart, my lymph system, is draining plasma and on this particular day its infused with little proteins intent on blowing up my corpuscles.
The ambulance attendant had marked the swelling when I first lay on the stretcher, and he did so again.
“That’s moving up pretty fast, isn’t it,” I say, looking at his drawing on my foot.
I have never liked the non-committal response from health care workers.
“I think I’ll give you something for pain,” he says after attempting three tries at inserting an IV in my hand. It’s swelling for a different reason than my foot.
Snake bites are somewhat of a curiosity in emergency rooms, so once we get there I’m sort of like the freak shows they used to have when the circus came to town in the 50’s. I now know what it’s like to be the star in one of those.
At least 6 people are in residence at any one time in ER Room 2, standing around looking at my toe. I hope they are all supposed to be there. This is an important consideration for me as two nurses are quite deftly unbuttoning my shirt and removing my bra.
Uh, breasts, exposed.
They don’t seem nearly so deft in getting the hospital grown draped on my front. I take solace in that fact that my big toe still appears to be my most captivating body part.
The special ER snake doctor looks like he could be on a reality show.
He gets out a tape measure, the ever valuable indelible marker, and time stamps my foot. The swelling has tripled.
“We’ll check again in 15 minutes,” Cute ER Snake Dr says. He turns to a nurse. “Get some blood, let’s see what it says. Rush it.”
“How is your pain? I can give you morphine,” another nurse suggests. I opt for something a little less…mind blowing.
“Your choice will only last about 30 minutes,” she admonishes.
As long as the 30 minutes starts immediately, I don’t really care.
If my lymph system is fast efficient going towards my heart, pumping Fentanyl directly into a vein is too.
I’m pretty sure I’m checking out for a few minutes.
“Your blood is excellent,” says Cute ER Snake Dr as he returns to measure, handsomer in a Fentanyl glow. “You were lucky'”, and this time when he measures, there was little progress towards my ankle. “We’ll keep you for a bit longer, but you want to go home about 3?”
We caravan back because everyone, sons, husband and mother came to my rescue in Bryan and sort of unanimously without voicing it we all head back to the farm. Foot propped up on a chair just steps from the ‘event’ I watch as my men beat the pine straw around the door and beyond. That copperhead was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. Or I was. He’s long gone.
By the time I get home one son tells me my foot looks like a blown up surgical glove and the other one prints out a label and glues my new superhero name to my laptop. ‘Snake Bite Janet’.
I hope I never get bit again but honestly, that big fear one has about snakes, strangely enough, not so much. Super human antibodies are busy finding residence in my immune system and besides it was a chance meeting.
Rarely will I find myself in the 0.000025%…