Georgia Snakebite Stories
Statistically, you are more likely to be struck by lightning than to be bitten by a venomous snake. But snake bites do happen occasionally. Here are the true stories of two Georgian’s ordeals with venomous snakes.
Phillip Everette could hardly have picked a more remote location to have an encounter with a rattlesnake.
On Saturday, June 20, 1998, Phillip was working on top of Pigeon Mountain in northwest Georgia. Phillip was the cattle foreman for the Rollins Farm (now Mountain Cove Properties), and he had just moved a herd of cattle into a 150-acre pasture. While cruising the pasture a week earlier, he had located a section of downed barbed wire and on that Saturday afternoon at about 2:30 he was repairing the fence.
“Two strands of wire had been knocked down from four or five posts and the grass and brush had grown over the wire,” said Phillip. “I was walking along with one wire in my left hand pulling it up out of the grass. I then reached down and grabbed the other wire and snatched wire and snake and all out of the grass.”
The 3 1/2-foot-long timber rattlesnake had apparently been laying across the strand of barbed wire, and when Phillip pulled the wire up, the snake was hung in the middle, suspended in the air by the wire.
“The snake was all over me,” said Phillip. “It never rattled. At first I thought a wire had dropped and a barb had stuck me in the finger until the snake began to wiggle and I felt the weight of it on my hand.”
As he slung the snake away from him, he could see one exposed fang, the other one was buried to the hilt into the index-finger knuckle on Phillip’s right hand.
“The snake wasn’t set to strike me,” he said. “When I pulled him out of the grass on the wire, he was apparently just flailing with his mouth open trying to get what was getting him, and he happened to bite my finger.
“The bite hurt, and I knew I was in trouble,” he said. “I had heard in a high-school seminar about snakes that it was a good idea to know what kind of snake had bit you, so I took a fence stretcher and killed the snake and put it in a bag in the back of my truck. Then I climbed in and started out.”
Phillip had a long way to go. Chattanooga and Rome were both about 45 miles away. LaFayette was even farther. He attempted to raise someone on the company radio in his truck, but because it was Saturday no one else was working and he received no answer.
Within two or three minutes, Phillip’s hand began to swell. The swelling was accompanied by an intense sense of vibration, or tingling from the inside that traveled up his arm.
“I could feel the venom moving through my bloodstream,” he said. “Within a few minutes, I felt it all the way to my toes. I could feel that something was in there that was wrong and that it was working on me.”
Within five minutes, he began to feel naseated and he was terribly frightened.
“There was a time when I was thinking, ‘What have I done? Am I going to die?’ but I pushed that thought out of my mind and concentrated on staying alive.”
Phillip elevated his right hand on the dash and drove, hanging over the steering wheel, with his left hand. The fence repair was at the back side of three cattle lots and he passed through three gates, opening and closing each gate—not wanting to complicate things by letting the cows get mixed.
Within about 10 minutes from the time he was bitten, a bluish tinge had started around the bite, and swelling was moving rapidly up his arm. Phillip’s tongue and the roof of his mouth began to swell as the nausea increased.
“It was not pretty,” said Phillip. “I lost all control of my bowels and of my urinary tract and I had an intense pain in my abdomen.”
By the time he reached a dirt road that lead out of the property toward Hwy 157, Phillip was delirious and he was concentrating solely on staying calm and on breathing.
“It was a terribly hot day, and I was having trouble breathing. It felt like my sinuses were swelling shut and my tongue was so swollen it was blocking my mouth.”
He stopped at the dirt road and turned the air conditioning on full blast into his face. Then, with both doors open he rolled onto the front seat and apparently passed out.
“How long that lasted, I’m not certain,” he said. “I remember coming to and thinking, ‘Pull yourself together. You’ve got to get out of here.’”
Phillip finally felt like he could drive on toward the paved road where traffic might be more likely, but after only a few hundred yards he was again so nauseated that he had to stop — even though there was nothing left in his stomach to throw up.
Phillip tried to lay down again, but the burning in his abdomen made it too uncomfortable. When he sat back up, he saw a vehicle approaching.
In the truck was “Rabbit” Buffington, of Trenton. Rabbit, an avid deer hunter, was on his way to scout on Crockford Pigeon Mountain WMA when he ran across the vehicle stopped in the dirt road. Phillip’s face was too swollen for him to speak, but with his left hand he pointed to his right hand.
“You’ve been bitten by a snake?” Rabbit asked.
The teenager riding with Rabbit was horrified by the sight of the swollen-faced man who was drooling from the mouth and unable to speak.
Rabbit pushed Phillip across the seat of his truck and climbed in to drive out. The nearest store was Autrey’s Family Grocery on Hwy 157. When they arrived, someone called 911. They were still so far from medical help that the operator told them to continue on down Hwy 157 to the intersection with Hwy 136 and an ambulance would meet them there.
Phillip said he doesn’t remember much about the 13-mile ride except that every bump brought agony. He said he focused only on breathing, and that the pain was nearly unbearable. “There was a time when I was thinking, ‘Let me go ahead and die and be done with it,’” he said.
Ambulance attendants moved him into their vehicle and sped toward the New Salem ballfield where a Life Force helicopter had been summoned. Phillip was loaded into the copter and an oxygen mask was placed over his mouth. “I remember the woman medic looking me in the face and telling me that they were going to get me some help—and then I blacked out.”
Four days later, Phillip regained consciousness in the Intensive Care Unit of Erhlanger Medical Center in Chattanooga. When he arrived at the hospital, the doctors told his family that he had only a 50/50 chance of surviving the bite. His wife said his head was swollen to the size of a basketball and the muscle contractions caused by the venom made his skin appear to crawl. He was given antivenin to counter the snake’s venom and put on morphine for the pain.
Phillip was hospitalized for eight days and underwent physical therapy for four months following the encounter with the rattlesnake. His hospital bills totaled about $42,000.
Today, Phillip is nearly back to normal. He still experiences some numbness in his right wrist. Living through a snake bite, he said, is not an experience you want to go through.
Manny Rubio of Atlanta, in his just-published book, “Rattlesnake, Portrait of a Predator,” states that several thousand venomous snake bites occur in the United States each year, but they result in fewer than a dozen fatalities. Too, roughly half of those bitten were handling, attempting to catch, or attempting to kill the snake. Manny’s advice to people who see venomous snakes is to feel privileged to have seen such a magnificent creature and to leave it alone. Often, however, the victim of a bite isn’t aware of the snake’s presence.
Ron Oram, of Fargo, is a snake handler. He has been catching venomous snakes for years, and he gives educational snake programs where he works at Stephen C. Foster State Park in the Okefenokee Swamp. Ron had never been bitten—until last August.
On August 28, 1998, Ron, 43 at the time, was finishing up a day at the remote park located near Fargo. Ron, who was making one last pass through the campground policing trash, was about to find out that the simple act of picking up an empty soft-drink can could turn into a dangerous act.
At about 4:30 p.m., Ron stopped when he noticed some paper laying in one of the campsites. He stepped out of his truck, walked over and picked up the trash. Then he noticed something shiny, a can, in a palmetto at the edge of the site. Without a thought, Ron reached into the palmetto.
“When I picked the can up, something popped me in the hand,” said Ron. “I thought it was a yellowjacket at first, but when I pulled my hand back and saw blood I knew it was something else. I pushed the brush back and saw the back half of a canebrake rattlesnake going around a pine tree. I didn’t see the whole thing, but judging from the girth, it was 4 1/2 to 5 feet long.”
The snake had hit Ron on both the first and second fingers of his right hand between the hand and the first knuckles. Snake experts estimate that between one-quarter and one-half of all human snake bites by venomous snakes are “dry,” that is, the snake bites, but does not inject venom. Ron’s was clearly not a dry bite.
“At first the bite felt like a hornet had stung me,” said Ron. “It’s a burning sensation like someone had put a cigarette on you. The snake had hit a vein and almost immediately I had a metallic taste in my mouth and a drying sensation in my tongue. I had the initial feeling of the shock—like a heat flash—and the start of an upset stomach.”
Ron immediately went to his truck and radioed the park headquarters and asked the park superintendent Sonny Marshall to meet him. Ron met Sonny on the road to the park office, and by the time he climbed into the other truck—only about a quarter mile from where he had been bitten—he was starting to see white spots.
Because snakes are present in the park, calls had already been made to local hospitals to see where the best medical care for snake bites could be obtained. The South Georgia Medical Center in Valdosta had the greatest amount of antivenin on hand, and that was Ron’s destination.
The two men drove 17 miles to Fargo, then continued toward Valdosta—about 57 miles away. By the time they reached Fargo, Ron was having trouble holding his head up, and he was losing his equilibrium. En route he stopped on the side of the road as he lost control of his bowels. They met a rescue squad in Statenville, and Ron, who had passed out once already, was transferred to the ambulance. He was unconscious when he arrived at the emergency room.
The medical center had 15 vials of antivenin on hand, and all 15 were administered to Ron. He woke up the next morning at 2 a.m. connected to i.v. tubes. His arm was elevated, and swollen to the point it felt like a balloon about to pop. Ron’s arm was bulging to the shoulder, and the hot, red, itchy skin continued down his side to his waist.
The pain, said Ron, was indescribable.
“I can honestly tell you that it’s more painful than anything you ever want to go through. I’ve been in car crashes, and I’ve had compound fractures, and I think I have a pretty high threshold for pain. But this was No. 1.”
Ron was hospitalized for a week, and it took another month to recover.
The bite hasn’t changed Ron’s opinion about venomous snakes.
“We still need venomous snakes,” said Ron. “They exist for a purpose.”
Ron has continued to give snake demonstrations since his ordeal—but now with a firsthand description of what being bitten by a rattlesnake feels like.
Forty species of snakes make Georgia home. Of those, only six are venomous: the copperhead; the canebrake, or timber rattlesnake; the eastern diamondback rattlesnake; the pygmy rattlesnake; the cottonmouth; and the coral snake.
In researching this story, GON talked to dozens of people who spend time afield—Wildlife Resources Division personnel, DNR law enforcement officers, foresters and herptologists. Strikingly, most of the people we talked to could not remember anyone being bitten by a venomous snake. Most of the bites we heard about occured to people handling snakes.
While injury due to a car wreck or even from a lightning strike is more likely, snake bites can occur. According to the Georgia Poison Control Center in Atlanta, 206 people were bitten by venomous snakes in Georgia during 1998. Of the total, 162 bites were considered to have had minimal effect on the person bitten; 37 were classified as moderate effect; and only seven bites were classified as having had major effect on the person bitten, and certainly both Phillip’s and Ron’s bites are of the extremely serious nature. None of the bites proved fatal.
Your best defense against snake bites is eduation on identification of Georgia’s snakes. An excellent snake-identification publication, “Snakes of Georgia and South Carolina,” was recently published by the Savannah River Ecology Lab (SREL). The booklet gives these guidelines if you happen to be bitten by a venomous snake:
• Don’t eat or drink anything.
• Don’t run or engage in strenuous physical activity.
• Don’t cut into bite marks.
• Don’t apply a restrictive tourniquet.
• Don’t use a stun gun or other electrical shock device.
• Don’t freeze or apply extreme cold to the bite area.
The booklet recommends that you stay calm and get to the nearest medical facility immediately.
“Snakes of Georgia and South Carolina,” can be obtained on Amazon.
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