I was in the bayou wildlife refuge park just outside of New Orleans, looking for the rosy wolf snail, indigenous to this area. Snail and slug photography is one of my more innocent interests, if a bit unusual. It’s supposed to be a calm thing to do after motorcycling round the countryside or kayaking down a whitewater rapid. It’s supposed to be a safe thing, like reading or playing the cello.
But all life comes with risk, especially when you’re in unfamiliar territory. Excited by the discovery of some sun-faded wolf shells, I was searching through forest litter on my hands and knees, my cellphone’s flashlight activated. Something stabbed me, and I flung my hand away, sweeping out with the other, dropping my phone and smashing it. In the dim light I could make out a snake on the pathway. I ran after it and photographed it. It was small, a muddy brown colour, and not very intimidating. I was wearing my moto boots and pants, and didn’t fear a second attack. The snake took off. I was a mile from my bike, so I started walking back.
“911 what is your emergency?”
“I need poison control. I’ve just been bitten by a snake and I’m alone. I would like you to remain on the phone with me until I can verify that I’m not having a reaction. I have a photo of the snake.”
I hoped that the sharp shooting pain in the tip of my left ring finger was a good sign. Often it’s the wounds that hurt the most that prove to be the most superficial, right? But then my finger began to deepen blue and numb. I tried to get more information from poison control. What is the range of time I could have before going into shock? There were no easy answers to that question – everyone is different, the operator told me.
“What is your location?”
“The Bayou Wildlife Refuge Park.”
“I don’t know where that is.”
The park is the size of New Orleans, adjacent to New Orleans. “I can give you my GPS coordinates.”
“M’am I have no way to use GPS coordinates.”
The hell kind of EMS service is this? “I’ll find a hospital on my bike then,” I said.
“No, you have to stay where you are!”
But no one was coming. Besides, I was wary of ambulance fees. It was thirteen miles to the nearest hospital. I soon discovered that I could not pull in the clutch with my left hand. The pain was excruciating; even the wind flowing over my swelling hand was unbearable, and so I held it behind the windshield.
I reached the hospital, parking my bike on the sidewalk outside the ER. The triage nurse was consulting another patient, and I tried to regain my composure as I stood in front of the little glass window. I was shaking with the relief of reaching the hospital, with pain and uncertainty about my condition. The nurse after two minutes turned to assess me. She asked my name and told me to stop playing with my phone. “I have a picture of the snake that bit me,” I said through tears. She told me she wasn’t interested in seeing it. She asked for my name but I couldn’t tell her. I was dizzy and confused. My last name is so hard to spell, I would have to spell it out for her with my canadian accent and my tears and I was having trouble remembering how to spell it myself and if I handed her my ID she might snap at me like she did with the phone. I kept crying and she kept getting more impatient. It was hard to breathe in the stuffy ER room. I went outside and cried beside my motorcycle. I googled venomous Louisiana snakes, but I couldn’t find mine. I called poison control and asked what could happen if I didn’t seek treatment. “Your arm could fall off,” the operator said. She was impatient too. “Why are you sitting outside the hospital instead of going inside and getting treatment? Have you been drinking?”
“No,” I said. “The triage nurse couldn’t understand what I was saying. I kept crying. I just want someone to look at the snake picture. Maybe it’s not a big deal.”
“Okay, you’re the expert,” the operator said. “This phone call is recorded, by the way.”
I didn’t understand why they were so clipped. I wasn’t refusing treatment. I’d gone to so much effort just to get to the hospital. It was hard to think clearly, but that didn’t seem to concern anyone.
After running every red light just to get to the hospital in a timely manner, I sat on the sidewalk staring at the sky and my bitten finger, leaning against Dorothy. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like going to sleep and I closed my eyes. Then I called a friend. He told me to go back inside and hand the phone to the triage nurse whilst he stayed on the line.
I went inside and handed my phone to the nurse, but she wouldn’t take it. “Please, he can give you my information,” I said
“I can only take it from you,” she said. “What is the problem exactly?”
“I’ve been bitten by a – a – sn-sn-snake!”
“Yes I know. What is your name?”
“That’s your last name?”
“No, my last name is –” I fumbled and handed her my ID. She took it.
I was led into an ER room directly. The tone changed. Many questions were asked of my past medical history. People were interested in seeing my snake photo. After a time I was given hydromorphone, a strong injected painkiller that hurt my sinuses but relieved the pain of the bite. Blood and urine samples were collected. Many came to see the bite, curious. Despite the area apparently well occupied by various kinds of venomous snakes, bites are pretty uncommon, the snakes being fairly non-aggressive. I had to explain my strange snail fascination to a motley of medical personnel. No one had ever heard of the rosy wolf snail.
Louisiana’s lead toxicology physician, who teaches tox at LSU, rarely works in the ER of the hospital where I found myself, but he just so happened to be there that night. Many commented on my good fortune to have him present. He was kind to me, as were the rest of the staff.
A police officer came in, self identifying as a snake enthusiast. He showed me pictures of snakes until I found mine – a pit viper by the name of cottonhead water moccasin. Their bites are venomous – extremely painful, slightly behind a rattlesnake bite and well ahead of a copperhead’s. They are also north american’s sole venomous water snake.
My bite, about 1.5 hrs after exposure.
One of the ER nurses was a motorcyclist. He was concerned about Dorothy on the sidewalk, and so he brought my luggage in for me and personally rode my motorcycle over to where he parked his own bike.
The nurses and physicians seemed llgenuinely concerned about my pain levels, constantly monitoring how I was doing. Every five minutes or less someone was attending to me, checking the swelling, checking my vitals, checking antivenom being introduced to my system. They explained their processes and constantly asked if I had any questions. I was eventually handed off to ICU. My old nurse was protective of me, reminding me not to let anyone do blood pressures or IVs on my left arm. “I’m sure they won’t, but just in case.” I was sad to see him leaving, along with the rest of the ER staff. We watched my trip video on my laptop together.
My new ICU nurse turned out to be just as gentle and attentive. Somewhere in the middle of the night, my pain levels went skyrocketing, around the same time when I badly had to pee and also wanted to vomit. There was no washroom in my private ICU room and no time to get the commode. He somehow managed to get a bedpan just in the nick of time, giving me medicine for the nausea and pain as well. It turns out that using a bedpan isn’t particularly embarrassing when you’re with a sensitive nurse. Being in agony helps too.
6 hours after exposure.
In the morning I was still being given antivenom. The swelling hadn’t worsened, but hadn’t improved a great deal either. I was nearing the end of the typical four-dose treatment; my condition was still poor enough to warrant continued antivenom.
12 hours after exposure.
In the evening the tox guru returned. He had not been scheduled to work but came in just to see me. “The danger zone is behind us now,” he said, holding my swollen hand in his own. He explained to me that snake venom escalates quickly and shows itself right away. He said that the finger changing colour even as I was walking back to my motorcycle was a very bad sign. “I think this was an extremely bad bite that saw medical attention just in time,” he said. “People don’t often die from cottonmouth bites, but it could have happened here.”
“I don’t understand, the snake was so small, compared to what I read as sizing for an average adult.”
“It is thought that the smaller snakes can be more dangerous, because they haven’t learned to control their venom and may end up injecting more than a larger snake would.
And all I have to show for it is the worn shell of a long dead wolf snail.