Facts to sink your fangs into

Watching and waiting are part of the protocol for treating snakebites

Watching and waiting are part of the protocol for treating snakebites

June 28, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

Colin Kelly didn't see the copperhead under his dog Sunny Girl's dish before the poisonous snake bit him on the pinkie of his left hand earlier this month.

The bite didn't hurt, the

7-year-old said, but it scared him.

Anita Kelly heard her son scream, saw the snake and called 911.

The dispatcher asked if Colin was conscious and instructed Kelly to avoid icing his hand and applying a tourniquet. Just have Colin keep his hand lower than his heart and stay calm, Kelly was told.

Colin was calm as Kelly called neighbors to come to stay with sons Christopher, 10, and Casey, 4, while she rode in the ambulance with Colin. She had taken a digital photo of the snake for identification, but the neighbor killed the snake, so the 2-foot-long copperhead also went to the hospital.


Copperheads are one of two types of poisonous snakes in Maryland, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Web site. The timber rattlesnake is the other. Northern copperheads and timber rattlesnakes also make their homes in Pennsylvania's Franklin and Fulton counties, said Angela Conklin, fish biology aide with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The two venomous snakes also are West Virginia's only poisonous snakes, said Jim Fregonara, a biologist with the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources.

Emergency care for snakebites is not the stuff of old cowboy movies, Fregonara said. Protocols most definitely do not include cutting the site of the bite and sucking out the venom, Fregonara said.

A bite from a poisonous snake does not equal instant death. Although a bite from a poisonous snake can be serious, only about 10 of the 7,000 to 8,000 that occur annually in the United States are fatal, said Dr. Tom Gilbert, chairman of emergency medicine at Washington County Hospital.

Emergency care for a snakebite involves mostly watching and waiting. When someone is bitten by a snake, they get scared, Gilbert said. Identification of the snake is helpful but sometimes isn't possible.

The victim should get to an emergency room within a half-hour to an hour, Gilbert said.

Dry bites - bites in which the poisonous snake punctures the victim but doesn't release its venom - also occur. Symptoms of poisoning - envenomization - include rapid heart rate and low blood pressure, Gilbert said. If poisoning has occurred, blood coagulation problems can result. Antivenin, or antivenom - a serum that contains the antitoxin that counteracts or neutralizes the poison - was available but not needed for Colin.

There are different antivenins for different snakes, Gilbert said. Emergency rooms have access to a 24-hour phone index of antivenins for out-of-the-area snakes, Gilbert said.

"Believe it or not," he said, "people play with snakes."

There are people who collect snakes, including poisonous varieties, and sometimes bites happen.

Colin's emergency care included a blood test, monitoring his vital signs - blood pressure and heart rate - and measuring the swelling, Kelly said.

The victim is watched cautiously for six hours, Gilbert said. He or she would be given lots of fluids and, if needed, steroids and medications to elevate blood pressure, Gilbert said.

If all is well, the victim can be released.

Colin went home at about 4 the next morning. He was given a sling to wear and became a bit of a celebrity. When paramedics came to his school to do a program, they asked him if he was "Snake Boy." He said yes, and the nickname has stuck.

Life quickly returned to normal at the Kellys' home near Hancock. A few changes have taken place, however. Sunny Girl has a different type of bowl, and she's not fed outside any more, Kelly said. The family is just being cautious

"We all wear shoes (outside) now," Kelly said.

The copperhead still is in the freezer. Colin wants to have it skinned and made into a headband.

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