Envenomation by the Southern Pacific Rattlesnake – A Reader’s Story

Crotalus oreganus helleri - Southern Pacific Rattlesnake
Southern Pacific Rattlesnake – image from CaliforniaHerps.com. ©Michael Clarkson.

Sometimes our curiosity gets the best of us. I know I’ve been too close to animals that shouldn’t have been anywhere near as a 12 year old. My friend had caught a juvenile copperhead snake and brought it up to my house so I could identify it. I quickly did, and we promptly lost it in the grass. My friend had been bitten by this snake prior to bringing it to my home. Luckily it was a dry bite.

The following is an email by a man who was bitten by and envenomated by a “Southern Pacific Rattlesnake” (Crotalus Viridus Helleri). Here is a paper on this snake. It appears it has since been reclassified and is now “Crotalus oreganus helleri.” If that’s incorrect – feel free to correct me in the comments or email. Thanks!

Years ago, while employed at a camp in Ojai, California, somebody announced that there was a snake outside on the pavement near our kitchen. Nobody said anything about the type of snake seen and it seems that nobody knew what it was to begin with. Many gathered around the snake at a safe distance except one curious individual. No rattles were seen and no sound was heard from the snake. Perhaps, we all assumed the snake looked like it was harmless.

Only one soul was brave enough to approach the snake. In fact, this person crept up to it and was only a few inches away. Suddenly, the snake formed an S-curve and struck at the curious individual. It was only then that I realized that I had made a terrible mistake! I was bleeding, but that was minor. The pain was fairly pronounced; the swelling and discoloration of my left hand and arm was extremely rapid. I then did the next stupid thing. No, I didn’t try to pick up the snake. I ran quickly to the camp hospital. No jokes – Vern, but the doctor and nurse were rather busy. Perhaps, I don’t need to explain why they were busy except to say that they seemed to be rather occupied with themselves.

I then did the next dumbest thing. I ran back to where I was bitten. Somebody was contacted and I was taken to the local hospital. Fortunately, staff here had sufficient experience and knew how to treat serious snakebites.

The doctor called the camp at least two times and instructed somebody to kill the snake and bring the head if not the entire snake for identification. Eventually, this was done. The snake was not the usual Western Diamondback in the area called Crotalus Atrox but was the smaller and more dangerous Southern Pacific Rattlesnake called Crotalus Viridus Helleri. In 24 hours, one can experience a very rapid loss of blood platelets among other things. Also, this snake may interbreed with the very, very dangerous Mojave rattlesnake, Crotalus Scutulatus, which often contains Mojave A toxin which is a very strong neurotoxin indeed.

Some specimens may contain Mojave A toxin but may have the B toxin which is typical of most not all other rattlesnakes. The B toxin is the more usual hemolytic type toxin which damages and or destroys tissues leading to necrosis. You know this last word I’m sure. Some years later, when visiting Mojave desert when I had very young children, both of them saw a snake in a hole. This might well have been the dreaded Mojave rattlesnake. Funny though, the Mojave desert comprises a small part of the range of Crotalus Scutulatus. Thus, some authorities might not approve of this common name as it is misleading to some degree. Plus, if my little children were bitten by such a snake, it would be doubtful that they would have survived. Communication and transport to the nearest hospital might take too long for victims to receive proper treatment which includes a number of vials of antivenin or antivenom.

In my case, I received a few vials of specific antivenom but don’t recall exactly how many vials. Fortunately, I was very fit, trim and athletic when I was bit. After some days in the hospital, no more than a week, I was transferred to a hospital much closer to my city of Los Angeles for observation. I found myself in a wonderful place called California New Hospital. The food was sensational which included fine fish and filet mignon!! I am not a regular beef eater but filet mignon is a rather expensive cut of beef and is very tender indeed. In fact, I do not eat red meat now. At California New hospital, I received very fine care with respect to observation. I only received antivenin at Ojai hospital. Was more or less a VIP (very important person) as many doctors and nurses visited me. Why? Simply because a typical doctor or nurse from the city is not experienced in treating serious snakebite cases and have never seen somebody with a snakebite let alone a serious bite! Some of the nurses were incredibly gorgeous. I wanted to stay longer in this hospital. Never ate such fine food in a hospital before or since!

As part of my treatment and or observation, I received some care from a plastic surgeon hand specialist. also was seen by an associate of the world famous Dr. Findlay Russell, at the time working at the U.S.C. – University Southern Calif. Medical Facility/Hospital. I was hoping to see M.D./Phd. Russell but as I recall, his colleague stated that Dr. Russell was in Africa at the time treating somebody with a serious snakebite, of course.

While at Ojai Hospital, doctor(s) considered cutting my whole left arm open due to the swelling and damage or necrosis of the tissue. fortunately, the swelling was greatly reduced soon thereafter. Some days later after being given vials of antivenom, I broke out in rashes which was a clear sign that I was allergic to the horse serum. One may be tested for this allergic reaction to the serum, but evidently, if you are allergic to it but have not been exposed to it before, you might have only a little or no reaction at first. I didn’t have any allergic reaction to the antivenom until about 2 weeks later. As my left arm was more or less confined and rather immobile for some days, I developed a clot in the arm. Because of this, my arm was almost cut open to remove or eliminate the clot. Again, the clot disappeared soon enough without further medical intervention. As far as the medical expenses were concerned, the camp’s insurance company paid for everything. Relatively, few people can afford to pay such bills without plenty of assistance. I myself am only a typical person of very modest means.

There must be a moral somewhere. Basically, if you’re not so damn certain of what you are viewing, don’t get so close to it. Leave it alone and possibly take pictures of it from a suitable distance if you have a camera. Well, this is how I became fascinated by the charm, the mystique and power of snakes or at least from some of them! Now I have dozens of fine books on snakes, covering many regions of the world. By the way Vern, if you can, try to find yourself a copy of The Snakes of Thailand and Their Husbandry by Merel J. Cox and published in 1991 by Krieger Publishing Company which is located in Florida, U.S.A. This is a 500+ page hardback but is worth having. Perhaps, by now it could be updated. On page 311, you will find a fine color photo of a beautiful white cobra. This is not an albino. Have you ever seen such a snake in Thailand? I assume that this Cobra is not a common species. Whether or not I am an expert on venomous snakes, I can say with 100% certainty that I do have first hand experience, namely my left hand! To be even more specific, I was actually bit in the thumb. According to the herpetologist that I saw, I was bitten with a full dose of venom by both fangs. If this account is of some interest to you and possibly to your readers, you may include it or the best parts in your newsletter. It seems funny to me now and has been for many years, but it is a very serious matter when you are the victim of a serious bite at the time it takes place. Many people, including snake specialists have died from such bites.

Hope my long account of my snakebite wasn’t boring. hopefully, it might even have provided some amusement or entertainment. All the best to you!

Best regards
David Kotin

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