Washington DC: Snakes Once We Got Off The Plane

While away many amazing things happened to our family. I tried to record some of them. Here is the story of 7 year old Kyle’s Copperhead snake bite.

July 2007 . . .

The Short Version:  On Tuesday afternoon, July 17, Kyle was bitten by a baby Copperhead Snake.  (Because baby snakes have no self-control, their bite is much more powerful, because they release all their venom at once.)  After a 3 day stay in the DC Children’s hospital and after receiving 14 vials of anti-venom, he is going to be ok.  We are now back in Park City, home and safe.

The Long Story: Tuesday afternoon we went to meet our friends Quinn and Max at Carderock, part of the Great Falls area on the Maryland side of the Potomac River.

While we waited for our friends, I made a phone call while Davy took the boys on a little hike.  While I was talking to Joe (one of the guys who works with us on our house), Kyle spotted a snake. He did the RIGHT thing and asked Dave if the snake was poisonous and then he asked Dave if he could pick it up. (Dave grew up here in Maryland and spent many a day as a boy catching snakes at this very same park).  Dave thought the snake looked like a Rat Snake and told Kyle it would be ok to pick it up.  Kyle walked around for about five minutes holding the snake in a responsible-snake-holding-position:  around its head. Then Dave told Kyle that he thought it would be ok to hold the snake differently.  At that, Kyle grabbed the snake around the middle. And at once, the snake showed its fangs and bit Kyle on his right index finger.

Eli came running out of the woods. “Kyle was bitten by a snake.” Kyle followed, sobbing, “Mommy, Mommy, I was bitten by a snake. I need a Band-Aid I need a Band-Aid NOW!”  Kyle was so focused on the trickle of blood coming out of his finger that I am sure he did not notice his finger turning paper white and swelling up.  I did.

Dave came out of the woods, holding a stick, which the snake had its fangs attached to.  “You have the snake?” I shrieked.  “Yes, here it is.”

And then he and I  completely freaked-out. Wouldn’t you?  In that mili-second I think we both realized that this was no time for freak-outs or blame, so we each took a deep breath and got the boys in the car.  We were so completely stunned about what had just happened. We were not even sure if it was a venomous snake at this point. We tried calling 911 and could not get through. Then we started driving out of the park and within seconds Kyle’s hand was ballooning.  He was  white as a sheet, sweating profusely and having a hard time breathing.  We finally reached 911 and after some discussion, we all agreed that it would be faster for us to continue driving Kyle to the hospital.

I silently exclaimed (just loud enough for Dave to hear) one LARGE Expletive (expletive omitted for the faint at heart) and then I shut up.  I turned to see a very panicked Kyle and totally overwhelmed Eli and I asked Eli to hold Kyle’s good hand and assure him that he would be all right.  Over and over Eli repeated,  “It is going to be ok, Kyle. It is going to be ok.”  Kyle’s hand continued to swell and he was becoming less responsive.  I could seethe pain setting in.

We did not know exactly where the hospital was or exactly how to get there.  I called Dave’s parents and very calmly told  them, “Kyle has been bitten by a snake. We are on our way to Suburban Hospital and need directions. I am going to hand the phone to Davy now and you can tell him how to get there.”

Of course once we reached the Beltway we were stuck in gridlock. Dave and I really had no idea how fast we needed to get to the hospital before it was TOO late so I encouraged Dave to drive on the shoulder.  Cars were honking and flipping us off while I think we were all silently hoping a cop would try to pull us over so we could get a hospital escort.

We just could not make our car move fast enough.  Kyle was moaning and Eli was chanting, “It is going to be ok, Kyle. It is going to be ok.”  It was about this time  when I wanted to completely shut down. I closed my eyes and tried to make it all stop.  It was not going to stop.  I had no idea how serious the bite was and I was fighting the urge not to check out.  I kept telling myself, “Beth, you are the mother. You turn around and assure Kyle that he will be ok.  Turn around and look at your son!”  In those brief moments I had no idea if he would be ok and I was scared out of my mind.

The  1.1 mile drive from Old Georgetown Road exit to the hospital took much longer than our Beltway-Shoulder-driving ride. Red light after red light. There was even a police car two lanes over. At one of the many stoplights I threatened, “Dave, I swear, I am going  to get out of this ca right now, walk across the two lanes of traffic and ask the police man to escort us the rest of the way.”  — anything to get us there.

We drove up. Dave flew out of the drivers seat and ran to lift Kyle.  I decided to leave the snake in the car.  Oh yeah did I mention that Dave and I both had the genius idea of bringing the snake (alive) to the hospital?  Say what you will, but we both wondered how they would really be able to identify the snake if they could not see it. Dave had thrown the little guy into a Wild Oats Canvas shopping bag I found him and then tied the bag with an iPod car charger chord I handed him.  What a team.

As five-year old Eli and I pulled into our parking spot, he asked me if we could say a little prayer for Kyle. I knew he was feeling as confused and scared as Dave and I.  Somehow the prayer and the knowledge that we were all feeling so lost was a comfort.

Eli and I parked and ran into the hospital. The security guard immediately let us in to triage.  I could not believe how big Kyle’s hand was getting. He was screaming because the pain was so bad.  They checked us in and sent us to the waiting room.  As Kyle screamed I think someone in the back told them to get Kyle into the Emergency room NOW!  They came back for him and ushered him into a room.  The doctor was freaked out by the snake, and the whole snake bite situation and was not handling his shock well.  (They don’t get many snake bites in these parts.)  I could see Kyle freak out in response to the doctor’s freak out and asked the doctor to remember that this little boy is scared and confused, so was everyone.

A nurse was on the line with Poison Control and Kyle continued to scream.  The doctor came in the room and started to put a tourniquet on Kyle’s arm when across the room the nurse, who was on the line with Poison Control began furiously waving her arms and screamed, “Stop!  Take the tourniquet off!”  And that is the moment we learned that a tourniquet stops the blood flow and leaves the poison in one place, which speed up tissue destruction.  The doctor quickly took the tourniquet off and left the room.

As Kyle’s hand grew, the nurses tried to figure out what kind of snake bit Kyle. That is when we mentioned that we had the snake with us. “You have the snake?  Is it dead, I hope?”   Dave ran to the car and retrieved it.  When he handed the snake to the nurse, she realized that it was still alive and sent Dave outside to Grim Reap the little guy. After stomping on it and breaking its jaw and smothering it, Dave brought the snake back into the hospital.  Every so often the snake would wiggle, but yes, it was dead.  They identified the snake and it was a baby Copperhead.

Did you know that the bite site needs to remain level with the heart?  We didn’t until the nurse told us that Kyle needed to lie completely flat.  See, if you raise the bite site, poison rushes to the heart, if you lower it, poison collects in the bite spot and there is strong potential for more tissue damage.  In the car, I had the wise idea of having Kyle elevate his hand.

A few hours later we also learned that baby Copperheads have a more powerful bite.  The reason is that adults have more self control and will often only release a small amount of venom when attacking a human.  They just do enough to cause some pain, and often these bites don’t even require hospital attention. The babies, on the other hand, let it rip.  The nurses saw two fang bites at Suburban Hospital and Davy only thought there was one.  One?  Two?  Does it really matter?  Kyle was not in good shape either way.

The kind nurses dutifully remained on the phone with Poison Control and calmly made sure Kyle was receiving the  proper treatment.  They were so low key about everything that I do not believe Dave and I understood how serious things were.  When we first walked into the hospital, we all assumed (even without the snake there yet) that it was a Copperhead.  The first thing the nurses said was, “Copperhead bites are not deadly.”  When we heard this, I think we just assumed everything would be ok.  It was not until they called the nurse educator down and she asked me to leave Kyle’s side and come speak with her privately.

“I need to talk to you.” She said and motioned me out of the room.  “I need to tell you what we think is going to happen. Your son is very sick and is in a lot of pain. Copperhead bites are very painful and we are going to start him on Morphine.”

“Morphine?” I mouthed.

“Compartment Syndrome is setting in and we may have to take him to surgery to relive the pressure in his hand.  He will probably shed layers of skin from his hand in a few days and we are very concerned about infection. He could lose mobility in his hand or even lose his hand.  We are going to start him on the anti-venom soon. We will start him with four vials.  We have called DC Children’s Hospital and they are sending an ambulance with a nurse and transfer team to come and get him.  If he needs surgery or the ICU, he will be better off there.  Children’s Hospital and Poison Control all agree that this is what needs to happen.”

I stood in stunned silence. After a minute or two tears filled my eyes. I looked at the nurse and she was crying too.

“I have a three-year old boy. I know,” she said as she gave me a hug.

I asked Dave to come in the hall and I relayed the news to him.

Dave’s sobs were overpowering me and I again wanted desperately to shut it all out. Instead I hugged him and told him that Kyle would be ok.

Somehow through all of this, Kyle’s nurse, Gracie, put a DVD in for the boys to watch. And as Kyle lay completely flat on the hospital bed, Eli sat next to him watching, “Chicken Run.”

The very cool all-woman ambulance team arrived, stabilized Kyle and loaded him into the back of the ambulance. I rode in the front with Tammy, the driver.

We arrived at Children’s Hospital and spent the next several hours in the emergency room.  A gaggle of residents kept coming in the room and making up excuses why they needed to examine Kyle’s hand.  I appreciated the last resident most, who laid it out for us when she said, “I don’t really need to see your son at all. I am not his doctor, but we never see snake bites. Would you mind if I take a look?”

The other highlight of the emergency room is in the middle of the toxicology resident’s examination of Kyle’s hand, she stopped suddenly looked directly at Dave and said, “Oh wow, is that the new iPhone?  Do you mind if I take a look?  Hey guys, you have to see this. It’s the new iPhone.”  As our friend Jason told us (he is a resident at Johns Hopkins, “We see blood, death and injury every day, but the new iPhone?  Priorities, we have our priorities.”

Late in the evening and after Darryl and DeAnne (Dave’s mom and dad) spent some time with Kyle, Dave and Eli followed them home.  I spent the night with Kyle on a chair that converts to a cot.  Kyle was hooked up to all sorts of monitors and had two IV lines, one for anti-venom and one for IV fluid and pain medication.  I could tell the morphine was wearing off when Kyle became very pale again and still.  His doctor kept commenting that Kyle was alright because he is just a serious and quiet kid.   Huh? Any of you who know Kyle, know that the one thing Kyle is not, is a quiet kid.   Something was not right.  When I did try to touch him, he would wince and he became afraid to move, all the while telling the doctors the pain was not that bad.  I am guessing that if someone had explained to Kyle that the severe discomfort he was feeling was the pain they were asking him about, Kyle would have been able to tell them more accurately how much pain he was in.   He had no frame of reference for this type of pain. Who does?   Finally the nurse and I talked with the doctor and convinced him to try one more round of morphine. About twenty minutes after receiving the morphine the nurse asked Kyle how he felt.  “So much better,” he kept saying.

The night was full of hospital monitors, alarms going off every time Kyle’s heart rate or oxygen level dropped too low and the snoring mother who was staying with her child, who was in the bed next to Kyle’s.  The snoring was actually a comfort to Kyle because he felt like his Wawa (my Mom) was sleeping close by.

All at once Kyle jumped up and frantically started itching his legs.  “Mom, mom, my legs. They itch. They itch all over.”  We found out he was probably having an allergic reaction to the anti-venom (which is quite common).   Benydryl was added to his regime and he was much better.  Another of the snake-bite trivia we learned is that actually until this recent strain of anti-venom was developed, the anti-venom was often as harmful/risky as the actual snake bite itself.  Kyle also vomited several times as a result of the anti-venom.

It was wild to watch his face balloon up and then go back to normal and then balloon up again.  This is also a side-effect of the anti-venom.  His arm did continue to swell throughout the second day, but thankfully at a much slower rate.  Around the clock the nurses measured and marked the rate of swelling and the circumference of his arm at various places.  Once the swelling had stopped for several hours, they were able to stop giving Kyle anti-venom.  They told us the average the give is ten vials and he was given fourteen.  After they stopped the anti-venom, Kyle had to stay at the hospital for another day.

Dave spent the second night at the hospital with Kyle and I while Eli remained with his Grandma and Grandpa. It was hard to be split up like that, but we were very grateful Dave’s parents were there to help.

Kyle was able to go home with his right hand intact. We feel grateful and lucky that everything turned out as well as it did.  We are so glad we instinctively knew to take him to the hospital.  There is definitely something to be said about the Critical First hour.   Kyle’s hand is still bruised, but he was left with no major tissue damage or clotting issues  (Pit-Vipers can affect and damage the body’s’ ability to clot.)

We are so grateful for Poison Control.  They were the only ones who really knew what was going on.

We are grateful for friends and family who were there to help.  We are grateful for Kyle’s school and for Diane (the director of the school).  Kyle wanted to talk to her and when he was finally able to, he was so much calmer.  Thank you.  I only wish I could have told you about this sooner. It has been a crazy few weeks.

much love,

Beth, Dave, Kyle & Eli

(snake pictures below)
(Marking the swelling and the beginnings of the dark discoloration in his fingernails)
(About an hour before Kyle went home, here he is helping the tech remove his two IV lines)
2 Comments
  1. July 23, 2010
  2. July 23, 2010