Snake Bite! – a man survives being bitten by a poisonous snake
After a near-fatal mistake, a prominent instructor offers a lesson that could save your life
The bite of a poisonous coral snake doesn’t hurt. It’s like being pricked with a needle. But when the poison reaches your central nervous system, the pain is awful. You feel as if you’re dying, which is the case in some instances. I was bitten on a golf course in Florida last summer, so I know. After barely escaping with my life, I’m still recovering. Perhaps my story will serve as a warning to other golfers.
I thought I knew snakes. As a boy I hunted, raised and sold all kinds of snakes around my home in Fort Lau-derdale, Fla. I was in business with my boyhood chum, Rick Worsham (son of 1947 U.S. Open champion Lew Worsham). At times we’d have more than 100 snakes of all kinds-corn snakes, rat snakes, garter snakes, brown and banded water snakes, indigo snakes and other varieties-in cages at my home.
We fed them minnows, tadpoles, frogs or deformed chickens we bought for a nickel apiece. We caught only three poisonous snakes in all that time-two pygmy rattlesnakes and an eastern diamondback rattlesnake-which we quickly traded for corn snakes at the Florida Gator Farm west of town. When it came to water moccasins, coral snakes, copperheads, rattlers and other poisonous varieties, we didn’t fool with them. So in September of last year, when I saw a foursome of women causing a big commotion over a snake they’d surrounded on the first fairway at the Country Club of Ocala, I had no worries about removing the snake for them. I hopped in a cart at the practice range, where I was giving a lesson, and drove over to help. With me was Carlos Lorrain (a pro from Venezuela who was next in line for a lesson) and my friends Jim and Kathy Roach.
The snake was big, about 30 inches long, with colored bands from tip to tail. To me it looked like a harmless scarlet king snake, simply because of its large size. Coral snakes typically are only 20 or so inches long. Thirty inches for a coral snake is enormous. I wish I had taken note of its shiny, jet-black head, the signature of the coral snake. I also wish I had thought of the old saying familiar to people from these parts: “Red and black, friend of Jack. Red and yellow, kill a fellow.” The sequence of the bands definitely was yellow-red- yellow-black.
The women were frightened and agitated. They wanted me to kill the snake either by clubbing it with a sand wedge or driving over it with one of the carts. “Wait a minute,” I said. “This snake isn’t hurting anyone. Let’s just put it back where it came from.” Big mistake.
The way you catch a snake is to first throw a towel over it. That tends to disorient the snake, and it can’t see you. Then you seize it just below the head with one hand while grabbing the tail end with your other hand. That’s what I did, but the snake squirmed and I dropped it-twice. On the third try, he poked his head out from under the towel and quickly bit me just below the second knuckle on the index finger of my right hand.
I had been bitten maybe 30 times over the years. Like I said, it doesn’t hurt. And it’s fast-the snake latched on for two seconds, then let go. This time Jim Roach picked up the snake and asked me, “What should I do with him?” For a moment, I considered taking the snake home as a gift to my 7-year-old son, John Morgan-a thought that makes me sick when I consider the possibilities. For some reason, I told Jim to turn the snake loose at the edge of some trees near the fairway. Jim did, and that was it. We told the women goodbye, then went back to the practice tee and finished the lesson. Then Carlos and I went out to play. We teed off on the back nine and had a very good match going until we reached the 14th hole, a par 4. There I did some-thing I never do: I hit a big duck hook into the woods and almost fell down. I couldn’t understand it; it was as though I’d lost control of my body. Then, as I walked off the tee, I suddenly got violently ill. I also became dizzy, hot and flushed. Carlos looked at me. “The playing lesson is over,” he said. “We’re going in.”
When we got to the clubhouse, the staff immediately called an ambulance. They also phoned my wife, Mary Beth. When the paramedics arrived, they wanted to know all about the snake that had bitten me. They went so far as to ask Carlos
to go back out on the course and find the snake. I told them all I could, then they whisked me to the hospital in Ocala. When the doctors observed my condition and symptoms, they felt sure the snake that had bitten me was a coral snake. My finger felt cold and leathery where the snake had bitten it. The bite of a coral snake can be deadly, so they immediately asked Mary Beth an important question: Should they administer the antivenin? It was crucial, because if I turned out to be allergic to the anti-venin, that could kill me, too. Mary Beth was hysterical but eventually consented to their giving me the antivenin.
They injected me with five vials of antivenin, and I felt better immediately. But a short time later I started convulsing on the table, my body bucking wildly. I felt as though I were levitating. I also felt cold, and a nurse covered me with blankets. I quickly felt much better, but strangely peaceful and detached. I called Mary Beth over and told her I loved her and asked her to tell my two children I loved them.
The doctors knew I was in deep trouble, and they sent me to a bigger hospital in the area that is better equipped to handle snake-bite victims. Upon arriving, I continued to improve, and that evening I was able to eat some Jell-O and sherbet. I slept well and felt so good the following morning that they discharged me at 2 p.m. I thought I was in the clear. The next day I gave a couple of lessons, and that evening I flew to Chicago to give more lessons I’d booked months earlier.
Everything was fine as I gave lessons through Monday. That evening, however, my index finger started swelling terribly. By Tuesday, it had become as large as a golf ball, and the two bite marks, once as small as the head of a pin, had become the size of pencil erasers. I went to a doctor, who lanced my swelling finger and prescribed an antibiotic. He put my arm in a sling and told me to keep my hand elevated. I then drove back to Florida, keeping my hand in the air the whole way. I thought that was quite a feat.
Three days later-a full 10 days after I was bitten-I suddenly developed a terrible headache, broke out in a rash and had a temperature of 102. I experienced throbbing pain in my hip and shoulder joints. Back to the hospital I went, where on Saturday morning I awoke to find I couldn’t move. All but my head and neck was paralyzed. My family came by to visit, and for me it was an awkward meeting because I didn’t want to alarm them. At one point, John Morgan stooped over the bed and gave me a big hug. “Daddy, why won’t you hug me back?” he asked. “Oh, I just need to stay under the blankets to keep warm,” I replied.
The doctors told me I had developed an allergic reaction to the antivenin, which was still in my system. They also broke the news, somberly, that coral snake bites were known to leave some victims paralyzed for life. That was the scariest part of my life, lying there in that bed wondering what would happen to me. Thank God I began to feel better again. I stayed in the hospital for observation until Tuesday, when they discharged me for the last time.
I felt lousy for the longest time after I left the hospital. I caught colds easily and tired quickly. The doctors said I wouldn’t feel like my old self for seven months, and they were right. But every one of them told me how lucky I was to have survived the incident with no permanent effect. One pointed out that the thick skin I’d developed on my index finger from playing golf may have stopped the coral snake’s teeth from sinking into me deeper and allowing more venom to enter my system.
The moral to the story is to be very wary of picking up any snake. And I’d like to add, don’t harm any snake. The coral snake that bit me wouldn’t have bothered me if I hadn’t bothered him in the first place.
COPYRIGHT 1999 New York Times Company Magazine Group, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group