Bitten by a Gabonica
On December 29, 2001, around 20.30 hours, I received a call from a snake keeper who lives in Gelderland, The Netherlands. I happened to be home because a previously made appointment was cancelled at the last moment. The caller introduced himself and said "I think I have a problem, I have just been bitten by my Bitis gabonica rhinoceros, what do I do now"?
Well, you bet you have a problem.
He proceeded to tell me that he had made a cut at the bite site and that he had applied a pressure bandage above the bite.
I told him to go to a hospital as soon as possible and to tell the emergency doctor to give me a call. In the meantime a called Walter Getreuer of the Serpo reptile zoo, but he didnt have polyvalent anti-venom for African vipers in stock. He told me that Johan Mavromichalis should have some ampoules anti-venom. I immediately called Johan and he was willing to supply the anti-venom if necessary (nine ampoules).
A little later I received a call from the doctor at the hospital asking me a thousand questions. Lucky for him that I knew all the answers. I even knew the answers to the questions he hadnt asked me. After about thirty minutes of answering questions and giving information on snakebites, the doctor went to work on the bite victim.
During the next few hours the doctor called me back several times to keep me informed and to get additional information on treatment.
The treatment history
The bite (one fang puncture wound) was situated on top of the wrist. As the evening went on the victim did not seem to experience much pain at the bite site. The pain of the swollen areas on his arm was excruciating however. It seemed that the arm couldnt swell up anymore without bursting open, so badly swollen was his arm. (the arm swelled up to the armpit) and morphine, prednison, antibiotics and a lot of Paracetamol ( common painkiller) was given on a regular basis. A catheter was also administrated.
After a night of observation, blood tests and conventional treatment it became obvious that treatment with anti-venom was needed. At around 11.00 hours next morning, during one hour, 5 ml of anti-venom was administered intravenously. After checking for allergic reactions, four ampoules where administered in an IV solution. During the day blood was drawn several times for analysis. The blood still wouldnt clot, so two more ampoules where given. After a few hours analysis of the blood showed that it was clotting. October 1, in the afternoon, the bite victim was taken from intensive care to the general ward. The swelling went down considerably and blood circulation in the arm was good. He remained in the hospital for observation till Monday October 4, at which time he was released. He had to take a lot of painkillers for several weeks to make it trough the day. After 7 weeks he could use his arm for short periods.
Needless to say that this person was incredibly lucky. Later he told me that a second surgeon was present who was from Indonesia, who knew a little bit about snakebites.
This surgeon wanted to cut open the arm to give room to the swelling and possibly amputate the arm when all else failed. Fortunately the victim was conscious enough to demand treatment with anti-venom first.
Lets be honest, theres trouble in the snake world. For every serious snake keeper, I can show you five not so serious keepers. For the last couple of years there are too many people starting to keep venomous snake who dont know what they are doing or even not knowing what they are buying. (This does not include the bite victim)
After having kept an Elaphe guttata or a Ball python for a few weeks, some people want to start keeping at least a cobra or a rattlesnake. Simply to show off, or to impress their friends.
People are buying all sorts of snakes without even asking for the proper names.
After keeping snakes for 16 months, having a website and having been bitten, some call themselves an authority on snakes, a bigshot importer or a herpetologist.
Not to long ago I got a call from some or other idiot who said his venomous snake wouldnt eat. When I asked him what species of snake he had, he said "a gray and black one, with a little bit of red too." And in Rotterdam I heard a proud father say that his fifteen-year-old son had a room full of venomous snakes in his home. "Oh, my son knows how to handle his snakes. When he pets his Crotalus atrox on the back and the snake turns his head, my son pulls back his hand very fast." Two months later a Trimeresurus albolabris bit him. Its no atrox, but still
In the last eight months venomous snakes in The Netherlands have bitten five people. The case Ive described here is the first Gabonica bite ever in Holland. And trust me, there will be at least another five cases in the next six months.
The big issue is, what are the effects of a venomous snakebite and more important, what do you do?
Every snake keeper says that he will never get bitten. When it does happen, you should have taken some precautionary measures beforehand. Make sure YOU have done your homework. Make sure YOU know what species of snakes you have. Make sure YOU know what needs to be done in case of a bite. Doctors in Holland dont know much about snakebites, so make sure YOU make a snakebite protocol. Try to get at least 1-2 ampoules of anti-venom (Its better than nothing). Make sure you have pressure bandages in your first aid kit. Make for every species of venomous snake in you collection a card with its Latin and English names, land of origin, type of venom (heamo, neuro, cytotoxic) what the effects are of the venoms in the body, type of anti-venom and where it is kept in the house. Write down telephone numbers of people who can advise doctors.
Keep all these cards handy for when you need them in a hurry. Stick a safety pin in each card so you can pin it on you. In case of a bite give this card to medical personnel at the hospital.
There are serious snake keepers who are willing to advise you, if you ask them.
As you can see, it isnt easy to keep venomous snakes. And another thing, to get a shot of anti-venom when youre bitten and youll be fine, thats a fairytale. If youre lucky youll live, hopefully without having a limb amputated. If youre really serious about keeping venomous snakes, think long and hard if its worth losing your life over a hobby.
And when you do decide to keep venomous snakes: STAY CLEAR OF THE HEAD!!! When it comes to speed, YOU LOSE!!!
Thanks to Johan Mavromichalis for offering his anti-venom.
Ton en Trudy Steehouder who helped me find Johan.
And last but not least the victim for his permission to write this article.