Of rattlesnake fangs and hypodermics

by Darrel Crain, D.C.

My wife was bitten on the finger by a rattlesnake late this August. She was reaching for the perfect tomato nested in the weeds beneath a large tomato plant in the garden where we live in the foothills of Southern California. We named it the $64,000 tomato.

Nancy never saw the snake, she only heard the rattle after being bitten. My sister and brother-in-law went in search of it 20 minutes later but the rattler was nowhere to be found. It is not uncommon to see rattlesnakes around our place, although we’re pretty sure this year sets a record for the number of rattlesnakes crossing our human paths, and vice versa.

rattlesnake san diego hillsPoisonous snakebite victims in the U.S. number about 6,000-8,000 per year, mostly in southern and western states. A rattlesnake bite is rarely fatal, reportedly causing only ten to fifteen deaths a year. About one-fifth of venomous snakebites are said to be “dry,” meaning the fangs go in, but no venom is injected.

Nancy’s bite was definitely not dry, her finger quickly swelled to resemble a sausage and turned very dark; her lips felt numb and she was tingly all over. The single fang puncture was bleeding freely, the snake’s other fang having presumably struck the airspace between fingers. We used an extractor over the bite two times and headed to the hospital. We will never know how much venom the extractor pulled out, but every little bit helps when only three drops of snake venom are considered a substantial dose.

(As a side note, I believe all households should keep an extractor kit on hand in the kitchen drawer. It looks like a toy plastic syringe and stows in a small plastic box containing various sized suction cups that attach to it. Extractors are useful for many kinds of bites or stings, especially from insects. We have used it for fire ant bites and you can feel instant relief as it pulls the formic acid injected by the ant right out.)

We rolled up to the emergency room doors after a 20-minute dash on the freeway without breaking the speed laws. Well, at least not too severely. We were ushered directly into exam room 2B past all the people in the busy Wednesday evening standing room only waiting room.

The first five minutes inside the tiny room brought a beehive of activity with nurses measuring vital signs, hooking up IVs, attaching electrodes all over, drawing blood, looking at the snake-bitten hand repeatedly and asking questions. One nurse was truly concerned that Nancy had hepatitis because her coloring is slightly orange, but we assured her the color was normal for someone who drinks fresh carrot juice every day. After that we waited for an hour and a half.

Nancy lay tossing and turning on the bed during the time it took for the antivenin to thaw from its frozen state in the hospital pharmacy. The wait felt like a day and half as Nancy’s hand and arm swelled larger, slowly extending upward, eventually swelling beyond the elbow.

The ER doctor informed us that Nancy would be receiving 6 vials of antivenin (the anti-venom drug) at a cost of over $8,000 per vial, to be dripped into her arm over the space of an hour. When the antivenin finally arrived, the $50,000 plastic IV drip bag looked no different than the $50 saline solution bag it replaced. Somehow I expected the drug bag with a price tag equal to a new BMW convertible to look more exciting than the one that costs less than a tank of gas. I was wrong.

After 20 minutes of the drip Nancy was feeling sedated and drowsy, and her arm continued to swell. Two hours and a couple of blood draws later we were told she’d be staying overnight for observation, although by the time an upstairs bed was finally available it was nearly dawn. I adjusted Nancy’s atlas before heading home for a nap.

No blood test is currently able to measure how much venom a person has in his or her bloodstream. The numerous blood draws from Nancy were done to keep track of her clotting time and look for kidney distress.

The venom of rattlesnakes encountered in this part of the country contains anticoagulants and other hemotoxins that disrupt normal blood clotting and may lead to uncontrolled bleeding, damaged blood vessels that leak blood into the tissue and disrupted kidney function. Traces of neurotoxins are also in the venom of local snakes that can affect breathing, cause heart problems and paralyze muscles.

Forty-six hours after she was bitten Nancy was home from the hospital. We started Nancy on the all-natural Gerson Therapy (a whole story in itself) to prime her body to get well in a hurry. It was time for her to begin clearing toxins from the snake venom as well as the medicine.

Which brings us to medical criticism. A friend recently complained that my critical views of medicine come across as the words of a grouchy old chiropractic doctor, angry with all medical interventions and an advocate of dumping the whole darn system. Well, perhaps I am mad at modern medicine, but only in the same way I’m mad at fatal traffic accidents, random violence and endless war. I believe it is our civic duty to get upset when large numbers of people are dying by accident, especially if there is a way we might be able to prevent it.

I respect and praise appropriate medicine, because it is wonderful and miraculous to behold. The ability to use drugs to counter the toxic effects of a poisonous snakebite or sew a person back together in an emergency is amazing. My teenaged son Charlie now has full function of his left arm, even though he suffered a hideous fracture a few years ago. He is able to use that arm without limitation today only because skilled orthopedic surgeons using amazing imaging technology were available on a moment’s notice. I myself went under the knife a couple of times as a kid to get patched up and I remain in awe of the skill and dedication of my doctor and his artful craft.

But that is only a small piece of the story. According to the late pediatrician Robert Mendelsohn, M.D., only 10 percent of standard medical care is appropriate. Mendelsohn’s view suggests that 90 percent of all medical interventions are of questionable benefit. In my book that means asking questions is a good thing for medical progress.

Nancy received a whopping 627 micrograms of the mercury-based preservative, thimerosal through her IV tube delivering the snake antivenin. Perhaps the scientists who make the stuff missed the research showing that mercury is a poor preservative and tragically neurotoxic. Why do you suppose they don’t make it without mercury? A very wise doctor once explained it would be a simple matter to switch to a preservative far less toxic than mercury in all medicinal compounds.

I am happy to report that Nancy is well on her way to recovery, but needless to say we were all pretty rattled by this event. After 45 years of the family living on this old ranch, my wife had the dubious honor of receiving the first kiss of venom from the fang of a rattlesnake.

Medical historians speculate that the first hypodermic needles were fashioned after the hollow fangs of pit vipers such as rattlesnakes, and their ability to deliver chemicals deep into living tissue.

The modern fangs of medical science are hypodermics that can deliver life-saving benefit, but also error, immune and neurological disorder, and DNA damage. A toxin is a toxin is a toxin. The only good toxin is the one you don’t get. I recommend avoiding toxins whenever we can and helping our bodies clear toxins as soon as possible no matter what the source.

Dr. Darrel Crain is a Family Chiropractor and Natural Health Writer practicing in San Diego, California.

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