On Friday, May 12, M. and I drove through the little town of San Luis, Colorado, headed for Taos. I noticed an elderly couple sitting behind a folding table at the roadside. They were selling oshá (Ligusticum porteri), a high-altitude plant whose root is used by herbalists for treating viral infections.
According to southern Colorado-northern New Mexico folklore, a piece of the root carried in your pocket protects against snakebite.
But we had gotten off to a late start, and we were pulling the little trailer, and so I zipped on past, even though oshá root tea might be good to have if one of us catches a cold.
Four days later, a rattlesnake bit me.
Once I realized that it was a snake bite and not that I had kicked a loose joint of cholla cactus with my sandaled foot, I felt like a complete chump. I never saw the rattlesnake--it struck and then it buzzed after retreating under a bush. I think it was a little rattlesnake--I never actually saw it, but the bite was small.
I was looking at birds at the time--we had parked the trailer at Tucson Mountain Park and gone for an after-dinner stroll on the paved campground roads, spotting bird species that we never see at home. I was staring off into the middle distance at some white-winged doves, but M., who claims to watch the ground obsessively, says she never saw the snake either. (Back when we counted owls for the BLM, it was she who once nearly stepped on a large rattler.)
I walked to a nearby spigot and washed the bite. I had a Sawyer venom extractor pump, but it was in my daypack back at camp, maybe 300 yards away. At the trailer, I applied the extractor, although in retrospect, I wonder if I kept it on for long enough.
Tucson natural-history writer Jonathan Hanson, who stopped by our camp the day we left, commented wryly that perhaps the best thing about the extractor is that it keeps you sitting still and occupied, so that you don't panic and run around. But he owns one.
What to do next? I could have followed "The Cowboy Way"--a bottle of whiskey, 24 hours of delirium, and unspecified tissue damage, with a guest appearance by the paramedics. M., however, argued for the hospital. Thinking of the fact that snake fangs carry who knows what bacteria, I agreed.
I called 911 and asked for directions to the nearest emergency room. We both were thinking I would get an antivenin shot, be given some antibiotics against infection, and be told to rest and drink plenty of fluids. How wrong we were!
St. Mary's Hospital claims to have Tucson's busiest emergency rooom, and it was packed. I limped in, filled out a form, sat down, and was immediately called by an ER nurse. Celebrity treatment.
Nurse and doctor questions. Sudden dizziness. A wheelchair ride. Profuse sweating, such that the tape holding the two IV needles in my left arm kept coming loose. Blood pressure way up. Blood pressure way down. Nausea. My speech slurring from the morphine. Even more people popping in to look at the snakebite.
By the following morning, I felt OK--from the knees up. My right foot was a huge uncured sausage, painfully tender to the touch, and my ankle and lower leg were puffy. I got vial after vial of CroFab antivenin and antibiotics, plus gallons of plain solution, with a goal of flushing the toxins.
That afternoon I was moved to intensive care, and by the following morning, I was badgering the doctor to release me, which he finally agreed to do after three more antivenin treatments and a quickie physical therapy session.
Furnished with crutches, pain pills, and oral antibiotics, I exited St. Mary's almost exactly 48 hours after arriving.
As I write this, it's six days later. The swelling has gone down somewhat, but I have not tried to wear a shoe on that foot, just a soft moccasin. As for the pain, well, hurray for acetominophen and opiates. I can walk (slowly) without crutches, but I cannot stand still comfortably long enough to brush my teeth.
Someone once divided North America into two provinces: Crotalia, which has rattlesnakes (genus Crotalus) and Acrotalia, which does not. Arizona must be in the Crotalian heartland, and snakes have totemic significance.
In the hospital, I heard every nurse and technician's rattlesnake anecdotes and folklore. For instance, baby rattlesnakes supposedly have not learned to regulate the amount of venom in their bites. (I am not so sure that snakes can plan so rationally, though this article suggests that there is a learning curve.) And there is always someone who says, "I've lived here all my life and never seen one."
Right after the bite had occurred, we passed another coiled rattler at the edge of the asphalt. It might have gone four feet in length, stretched out. It buzzed a warning, and we avoided it. Maybe they do learn to rattle properly.
Coming back through San Luis, we watched out for the old couple, but it was Sunday, and they had not set up their oshá stand.