For Southern farmers, painful bites require time and huge bills to cure
The strike seemed impossibly fast to Bill Ryan Tabb, as though a thick branch had snapped across the back of his leg. Tabb took two steps, checked up and felt an odd sensation wash over him—a searing pain that had no precedent. Turning about, he watched a snake wrap into 3' of coil, head cocked up and mouth agape, holding its ground on the edge of a turnrow in burned down, withered grass. Black-gray body, thick midsection and blunt tale, Tabb immediately recognized it as a cottonmouth—and knew he was racing against time.
“I left the snake coiled in the grass and just wanted to get help as fast as possible,” Tabb recalls. After a 20-minute drive to the hospital, the bite area was beginning to turn black.
Bill Ryan Tabb, Bolivar County, Miss., needed 18 doses of antivenom and six months to fully recover after being bit by a cottonmouth.
“I started getting faint as my blood pressure dropped. I really got nervous and recognized I could be in big trouble. It’s difficult to describe how bad my muscles ached,” he says.
Due to high costs and limited shelf life, small hospitals often have scarce antivenom supplies. Tabb was given two vials of antivenom in Cleveland, Miss., and then moved to Jackson. After 18 total doses of antivenom, the poison’s spread was stemmed, but he remained in the hospital for three days and took a full six months at home to fully recover.
“I don’t get edgy on turnrows, but I do find myself watching my steps very closely when I’m walking down a levee of tall rice. If I’m rolling up a rice gate to regulate irrigation water, it gets a little nerve-wracking for me,” he says.
Farmland is a haven for snakes. Ditches, ponds, patches of woods, sheds, barns, irrigation equipment and grain bins offer a bevy of cover and food sources. Statistics fly under the radar, but agriculture workers are consistently bitten—typically by copperheads, cottonmouths and rattlesnakes.
In October 2013, 36-year-old Delta farmers Garrett Carver, Ruleville, Miss., had finished cutting soybeans and should have been preparing ground for winter but caught a rain that kept him out of his fields. Along with his brother, Carver hauled grain and filled feeders in a stretch of woods in Carroll County, preparing food plots for deer season. By 10:30 a.m., he’d moved on to clearing back brush and cut a branch that fell directly on a timber rattlesnake. “I reached down to pick up the limb and got tagged on the second knuckle of my index finger,” Carver says.
Despite an instant burning sensation, Carver didn’t realize he’d been bit. His knuckle was bleeding from a solitary puncture wound—only one fang had found the mark. “I thought I’d been stung by a hornet, but my hand was on fire,” he says. “I walked over to my brother to show him the wound because the single spot and the blood didn’t make sense.”
They walked back to the bite site just in time to see a 2' rattler moving back into the undergrowth. “I was instantly hit with a sick feeling in my gut: I knew I’d been bit by a rattlesnake.”
From that point, a series of errors almost cost Carver his life. Arriving at the Greenwood hospital at 10:45 a.m., Carver was treated with pain medicine until 5 p.m.—no antivenom. “I told the doctors, but I’m not sure they initially believed me,” he recalls.
Displaying typical behavior, a cottonmouth cocks its head up and holds ground. Ditches, barns, irrigation equipment and grain bins offer snakes a bevy of cover and food sources.
When a new doctor came on shift late in the afternoon, he read the blood work report and insisted Carver receive immediate antivenom, but the Greenwood antivenom supply was sitting on empty. Carver didn’t wait for an ambulance as his wife drove him 100 miles to Jackson, arriving with his entire arm swollen—red streaks patterned up to his bicep. In the Jackson emergency room, Carver was mistakenly placed in general admittance, the pain nearly unbearable.
“I finally started raising Cain and a nurse in the back said, ‘Get him in now. That’s the guy we’ve been waiting on,’” he says.
At 9:30 p.m., despite the bite occurring 11 hours earlier, Carver was given antivenom—the first of eight doses. “I was worried the swelling was so bad they would have to split the skin to relieve the pressure, but the anti-venom kicked in and turned me around.” Antivenom varies in price, but each vial in Carver’s case cost a hefty $8,000.
Three days later, Carver left the hospital but needed an additional four months to gain proper use of his hand. He stayed away from the bite-site woods for an entire year.
The hills of southeast Mississippi’s Claiborne County can be prime ground for timber rattlers. Dana Sanders serves as a wetlands consultant, typically operating alone when taking soil samples and conducting endangered species surveys. On Sept. 13, 2014, even his outdoor background couldn’t prevent a severe snakebite as he worked in a food plot on the family farm located in the hills adjacent to the Big Black River. Standing beside a pile of slash debris while cutting limbs for shooting lanes, Sanders took a step back into the slash and felt a violent strike slam just above his 6" boots.
“It was like a board with nails just stuck in my leg,” he describes.
He jumped back to the edge of the food plot and then crept forward to get a look at the snake—a very large yellow-faced timber rattler possibly 4' to 5' long, with a head 3" wide.
“I knew I’d probably stepped on him, and he was doing what he’s programmed to do naturally,” he says.
My dad was with me, and I told him, ‘I just got bit by a rattlesnake. We’ve got to go now.’”
As a volunteer fireman and first responder, Sanders’ training kicked in, and he remained calm. “I didn’t wrap it, tie it off or cut it. I called ahead to the hospital in Vicksburg 30 minutes away to give them time to get antivenom set up.”
Within 20 minutes of the bite, Sanders was going into shock. He was transferred from his father’s truck to an ambulance on the outskirts of Vicksburg and given a shot of morphine to cut his pain. It had no effect.
The hospital was ready when Sanders arrived: Within an hour and a half of being bitten, he was receiving antivenom. Yet, the pain was still mounting and doctors were marking the progression of venom as it moved through his leg.
After additional morphine shots failed to ease his pain, doctors gave Sanders Dilaudid, a synthetic heroin that brought relief. He needed 12 vials of antivenom to keep the poison from advancing beyond his hip and remained hospitalized for five days. The bill for the entire procedure was $446,000. (Each vial of antivenom was $22,000, and Sanders was fortunate to have adequate insurance.)
Several months later, he was back at work in the midst of snake habitat. “Everything that happened was preventable—I wasn’t aware of my surroundings or paying attention,” he says. “I always wear snake leggings now.”
Sanders still has swelling and faces permanent nerve damage but says he was fortunate to receive quick treatment. “Any spot on a farm is snake habitat. If you get bit; don’t treat yourself with a kit or wait. You’re only going to increase your chance of infection that is bacteria-derived. Call ahead, let the ER get ready and get your tail to the hospital.”