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Double Whammy

Getting bitten by a snake is bad enough, but the hospital bill just might kill you.

By Robyn Gammill

Let’s face it: flip-flops are convenient, but in springtime in Texas, even in the tall weeds of your very own backyard, they are inappropriate footwear. I knew this to be true, and yet I pushed my luck (for the nth time) one Saturday last May when I needed to make a quick trip to the henhouse. Had I known how extremely uncomfortable I was soon to become, I would have worn my boots. Let’s just say that I am living proof that wishful thinking serves fairly poorly as a snake repellent.

In fact, I now know I had violated three of the four recommendations of the Texas Department of State Health Services for avoiding snakebite: I had failed to keep the landscape well manicured; to wear long pants and boots in areas known to have snakes; and to watch where I stepped in areas where snakes could be resting. The only suggestion I had managed to follow was to avoid handling or playing with snakes without proper training.

Anyone who’s ever been bitten by a playfully overeager kitten knows what I felt as I crossed the yard that morning. As I turned to confront what I expected to be our young pet, I came face to face with a two-foot copperhead that looked as if he’d be happy to serve me another shot. I hobbled to the house and called my savvier-than-thou neighbor, Darrell, to ask whether I couldn’t just ice my ankle and elevate it. After all, I had nursed the dogs through many a copperhead encounter, and they were fine! Plus, my ankle didn’t really hurt much. Yet.

Darrell graciously reminded me that I was not a dog and insisted on driving me and the kids (the husband was at work) to the sheriff’s office of our rural county. When the EMTs arrived and unloaded a stretcher, I had my next collision with snakebite reality: There is no effective venom-countering treatment that can be done in the comfort of one’s automobile front seat. I would be going to a hospital in one of the cities near my small town.

Along the way I came to discover that many of the age-old suggestions we’ve all grown up with regarding how to treat snakebite might do more harm than good. According to the TDSHS, ice, bandages, cuts across the bite and tourniquets are all discouraged as having the potential to cause tissue damage. Washing the wound is suggested, if possible. Even squeezing or (gasp!) sucking the wound to remove some of the venom is recommended, as are limiting movement of the limb (and keeping it below the heart), keeping calm, removing any constricting clothing or jewelry before swelling starts and, of course, seeking medical attention immediately. (A tetanus shot is also recommended.)

Not long into our trip I realized, quite suddenly, that embarrassment at having lost the fate-tempting challenge would not be the extent of my suffering. The swelling in my left leg produced a pain the likes of which could make childbirth palatable by comparison. By the time we reached the hospital, the EMT had administered me more than one dose of morphine, for which I will be forever grateful.

At the emergency room, I got yet another surprise: I’d be spending the night. It turns out that reactions to snakebites vary and that the medical professionals like to keep an eye on you in case of anaphylactic shock. Some folks also suffer a severe reaction to the antivenom. In my case, the doctors kept track of the extent of the swelling by marking my leg with indelible marker. Then they admitted me, started an IV and hung the first of three two-hour courses of antivenom treatment I would receive before being discharged late the next day. (For those of you keeping track, there went the weekend.)

I could go on and on about the agony of trying to walk on a snakebite-swollen ankle, about missing a week of work, about sleepless nights with a green and purple foot propped up on six pillows under cold, wet washrags, but if you haven’t been persuaded by now to put your boots on, even for that last-minute dash to the henhouse, consider the ultimate ah-ha moment of this tale: the bill.

When my insurance company reported to me what the hospital had charged for my overnight stay, I laughed out loud. Their zero key must be sticking, I thought. But the itemized statement I requested from the hospital bore the same unbelievable figures: The charges for tempting fate in my flip-flops amounted to a whopping $40,471. The price of the antivenom treatment alone was — are you sitting down? — $36,102.

So the moral of the story is — say it with me, folks: Mow your yard, watch where you step and wear your boots! And for pete’s sake, don’t play with snakes. Why? Because a snakebite hurts. A lot. In more ways than one.

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