Woman recovering from poisonous snakebite

Summer is prime snake season
Jul. 26, 2014 @ 03:28 PM

The sharp pin-pricks drew a trickle of blood, but Nancy Mitchell figured the injury was from a holly bush leaf that stuck her finger as she reached down to switch off a garden light at her backyard patio. But the sight of unmistakeable brown-red markings quickly slithering away soon convinced her otherwise.

"It was a copperhead snake, about four feet in length and three inches in diameter," said Mitchell's husband, Dick, who rushed outside to investigate.

The incident took place at their Cedar Rock home on July 7 around 11 p.m., prime-time for the nocturnal reptile searching for rodents. Fearing the worst, the couple headed to Caldwell Memorial Hospital. Within two hours, the shooting pains in her swollen right arm sent doctors scrambling for a vial of antivenin.

"I felt pain up my right arm all the way to my armpit," Nancy Mitchell said. "It was excruciating, almost unbearable."

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, about 8,000 venomous snakebites occur annually across the U.S. In Caldwell County, where copperheads are common, rescue crews have treated four people for snakebites so far in 2014, said LouAnne Kincaid, the county's public information officer.

"These are just calls that involved transport," she said. "Some people may have driven themselves to the hospital."

Of the 47 species of snakes in North Carolina, only six are venomous: the copperhead, water moccasin or cottonmouth, coral snake, and three species of rattlesnake, according to the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service.

Copperheads are pit vipers, easily recognizable by their large, triangular or diamond-shaped head, a pit between the nostril and the eye, and vertically elliptical "cat's eye" pupils. The pin-pricks Nancy Mitchell felt were from the two hollow fangs connected to venom glands that inject a hematoxic venom, which destroys red blood cells and damages tissue. Copperheads sometimes can bite without injecting venom, known as a "dry bite."

"Doctors thought it could have been a dry bite, so they measured my arm every hour," Nancy Mitchell said. "After it swelled up, doctors called poison control, who said I needed the antivenin."

The treatment worked, and she was released from the hospital the following morning. Her arm is still tender, and the swelling comes and goes, along with the itching of the skin. But with the large size of the copperhead (copperheads average 2 to 4 feet in length), the outcome could have been worse.

"It was beginning to swell badly. I didn't know what to do," Nancy added. "I was very grateful to the doctors, they did what was necessary."