Don’t Be Rattled: A True Story of How to Survive a Snake Bite

Hands On

My husband Keil survived a rattlesnake bite—alone, barefoot in the mountains, without reception and with asphyxiation beginning to set in.

Sometimes I wonder if he survived so his story could save someone else’s life. Other times I marvel at what a total BOSS he is. Regardless, do the daredevils in your life a favor and share his story with them. The best defense is knowledge, preparation and an extra helping of complete badassery.

The Backstory 

“I was dealing with some issues in my life and found that going to the mountains and being with friends was a good escape. So it’s late spring. I ride up to the mountains to the river on my motorcycle by myself to go swimming—which is something I’d never done before—but needed to clear my head.

I’m up there spending time praying and reflecting. When I’ve got people with me, I’m ready to just jump in the river off these cliffs. There’s a 25-foot one, a 35-foot and a 45-foot jump.

The water is normally cold. It’s fresh, snow-packed mountain water, so I need a little time to get mentally ready to jump in. Even before jumping in, I decide to trek up the river a little, because I’ve never been through that part. I normally go to an exact spot and don’t venture anywhere up or downstream from it, but that day I decide to do it out of curiosity.

I get further away from where people usually are—where the rocks are worn from people stepping on the vegetation, where you can see a little bit of litter, where people spray paint and carve their names into trees and where they normally hang out. It’s less accessible, but in my curiosity as to whether there was another swimming hole that people haven’t discovered yet, I find myself further upstream.

The ironic thing is I remember encountering some spiderwebs and thinking, ‘Oh this could be a bad thing if I get bit by a spider. I need to be alert for spiderwebs and insects that are up in the area.’

I have a friend who warned me about rattlesnakes in the area—but they never crossed my mind.

The one thing I recall him saying is that I’d know when they’re near because I’d hear them rattling as a warning. Humorously, he said, ‘In the event you get bit by a rattlesnake with somebody there or by yourself, you can just pee on the wound and it’s supposed to draw out the venom.’

Normally, if I’d go hiking with him, it’d be out in these rocky hillsides/valley/plains kind of areas. It never occurred to me that there’d be rattlesnakes in the lush, vegetative, cattails riverbed area I was in. 

So when my mind was preoccupied with what spiders might lay ahead, there was zero thought of rattlesnakes. Zero.

The Bite

Barefoot and in just my swimming shorts, I remember pushing through cattails and spreading the vegetation with my hands.

I step onto a rock, then down onto another rock, and feel…(clamps thumb and fingers together in a biting motion).

It was just like something grabbed me, the way a sibling would grab your toe or foot from underneath a bed, and it’s very unexpected.

I sort of jump back and turn around and see a curled up black rattlesnake under the rock that I’d just stepped down off of.

It only took one second for me to be like, ‘Oh no. I just got bit. I could die. I need to go NOW.’

I immediately avoid the way I came. I didn’t waste any time looking at the snake or trying to study it. Some people would say that’s a tip—if there’s a way to bring the snake back, kill it and bring it back so the doctors know what specific type of anti-venom to administer. I didn’t know that was a thing and wasn’t about to try it.

All I know is that I saw the snake for a second and I was OUT of there. Gone.

The Survival Hike Out

So I hike back downstream. I’m terrified. The stream is rolling over these river rocks that go down into one large shallow wading pool onto a rolling stream down to another shallow wading pool.

I try to avoid the water and think I can get through the area quicker than if I get in the pools. I get to a place where, when I was first hiking, there were two big boulders I had to slide down and hike up. So I stop and am like, ‘Ok, what do I do? I don’t have time to scale the rock and slide down it.’ So I just jump for it, hit the rock, land in the water, and decide, ‘Okay, this is probably my best course now.’

So I keep going with my hands on the rocks, crawling, but letting the stream take me down to the next wading pool where the streams are rolling, and then down to the next wading pool. I get to this 40-foot waterfall and then need to decide, ‘Am I going to jump down to hike up or am I going to try to skirt the waterfall?’

I decide to skirt the waterfall to get to my stuff.

I already know that there’s no reception down in this area. This is remote. I’ve never had reception in this swimming hole, and it’s about a 10-minute hike out. So I know my best chance right then is to get my stuff as quick as I can and get back to the road.

On the hike, I start feeling very light-headed. I don’t know the effects of venom and assume something like this can take hold very quickly, and while I’m feeling this lethargy starting to come on, I’m trying to dial 911 and my fingers aren’t seeming to work. It’s like a nightmare.

I can’t get 911 because I’m just terrified. I’m fearing this is the end. I’m fearing if I just pass out right now, it’s not just passing out, it’s the effects of the venom taking over and I’m going to die on this path, on this dusty trail back up to my motorcycle.

So I’m slapping my face and screaming and trying to keep myself alert, yelling, ‘NO!! THIS IS NOT HAPPENING. NO!’ trying to keep myself from passing out.

That 10-minute hike maybe took five because I’m running to my motorcycle, running to the road, in hopes that there’s cell service there. I don’t actually know if there’s service on the road, but I know for a fact there isn’t service down where I’m at.

So I get up to the road and the motorcycle and am like, ‘I’m here. Okay. I actually survived that.’

I’m a little more alert now, but what really is happening is the terror setting in is causing the fight or flight response, which tends to put me in a blackout mode.

So combine that with the fact that I’m trying to hike a 10-minute hike in five minutes, running the hike, and my heart is pumping super, super hard and I probably am on the verge of passing out.

I got bit on the inside arch of my left foot and the venom is starting to take effect because my pinky toe starts going numb.

By the time I hike out, my entire foot is already numb.

The Call for Help

I’m not bleeding very much. My foot just has a couple little dribbles of blood. But I call 911 and am able to get reception right there on the road next to my motorcycle.

The paramedics are telling me that…well, they aren’t giving me much information. I’m worried and I am asking them, ‘How much time do I have to survive?’ And he’s circumventing the question by saying, ‘Well, it depends on how long the snake had been biting you, if it was a young one or an old one, and how long ago it happened.’

So he obviously can’t tell me how much time I have to survive. But in my mind, I’m like, ‘Do I have minutes or do I have hours?’ I have no idea.

So he’s avoiding the question while at the same time trying to let me know that the ambulance is on its way. I’m aware that there’s a fire crew in the mountain town that was maybe 25 minutes down the hill. He’s telling me that they’re sending an ambulance from a town that’s even further down in the valley, 20 minutes further from that mountain town. It’s not the fire crew that’s responding.

I find out later that neither the ambulance nor the hospital I was going to had anti-venom for the rattlesnake.

You’d figure they do, but they don’t have it. This is all the information he’s not telling me. But they send an ambulance from about 40 minutes away.

In the meantime, one car drives past and here I am, wet, without a t-shirt, I’ve got tattoos on my chest, and I’m bleeding from the foot, just by myself out in the mountains. Some girl drives off. She isn’t going to stop.

But somebody does stop.

I get in the middle of the road and wave them down. It’s some woman with three kids and a dog in her car. The car is full, but she still lets me get in. So I’m in this car with her and a teenager up front, two kids and a dog in the backseat, and me. The kids aren’t comprehending what’s going on, they just know I got bit by something.

So I’m on the phone with the ambulance to make sure they’re aware I’m now not where I was because they’re ready to send a chopper up like it’s a rescue, like I’m stranded in the mountains.

I’m letting them know I’m now in fact on the move down the mountain in a car, somebody picked me up, and they’re going to meet me close to that mountain town so that I can get in the ambulance and they can start monitoring my vitals.

By the time I get to the ambulance, my foot up to my ankle is numb and I’m already experiencing asphyxiation.

On the ride down, I was fighting passing out. So I get to the ambulance and they hook me up to the things they use to monitor my heart rate with my finger. He starts marking my ankle with a pen, seeing where the swelling is so that by the time I get to the hospital, they can see how far and quickly this is advancing and swelling up my leg. 

The Hospital

When I get to the hospital, I’m like an enigma. Nobody’s ever seen a snakebite in that hospital and I keep having nurses poke their heads in. People are whispering behind the curtains and they’re poking their eyes around the corner to see me.

There are a couple of times people are brought in with a nurse so they can see it. It’s a little, ‘Hey, there’s a guy in here who got bit by a rattlesnake, you should come see it.’

So from the time I get bit to when the first round of anti-venom is administered at the hospital (after it was transported from another hospital 80 miles away), about an hour and a half has passed.

I have to have six different rounds of anti-venom.

They give it time to see if it’s going to start turning around the effects as they monitor the swelling up my leg. It’s six different administrations—maybe two or three vials each. I don’t have complete recollection of that.

The swelling is ballooned up to my thigh and it’s now my whole left leg.

They’re concerned that if I have severe swelling, my blood vessels are becoming restricted because of all the swelling in the tissue and that my circulation will stop in the part of my body I got bit.

What they try to do is prevent you from losing a limb due to circulation loss and swelling in that limb. Your flesh will become necrotic because the part of your body that’s not receiving that blood will die if it doesn’t receive the blood.

I could lose my entire leg.

In circumstances like mine, when they see the fast development of swelling, they’ll filet your body open wherever the swelling is to relieve the swelling, but luckily, they didn’t do that with me. I was worried about that.

I’m in the hospital for two days and the bill is half a million dollars.

So I’m in the hospital and still do not know what will happen. I’m still not getting straight answers. They just tell me what they need to do.

I didn’t bring in a dead snake and I can only identify it by what I saw, which was just a half a second of what I was willing to take in before I got the heck out of there.

They just give me a rounded anti-venom which should cover certain species. In order for them to know that it’s working, they need to administer it and wait six hours before administering the next one so they can see that my body is responding and that the swelling is not progressing.

It hurts. I can see the muscles in my leg contracting in different spots. The muscles, in response to the venom, cramp in certain areas and you can watch it happen—your muscles just start moving on their own like you’re a zombie.

In the meantime, my worry is that if the venom from this bite doesn’t respond to the anti-venom, I’m SOL. It’s either going to respond or it’s not. The swelling’s going to continue and the venom’s going to continue curdling my blood and taking effect, or it isn’t.

Thank God, I survived.

Snake Bite Survival Tips

This is what I learned after the fact, having researched some of the best things you can do:

1. Never go alone.

Just like anyone else, I would have never suspected anything bad or life-threatening would or even could happen that day, and it certainly did. Your best ally in that situation is to have somebody else there. Period.

I had to save my own life.

If I’d have been with somebody, I could have stayed where I was at and they could have hiked out, gotten help, and called. But it was up to me.

I had to backtrack. I had to risk falling, getting knocked out, drowning, breaking an ankle, getting stuck and venom continuing to take hold while I’m away from my phone, away from the road and away from anyone being able to see me.

I risked all that just doing it by myself. So at least somebody else can go get help when you can’t—if you can’t—if something more severe happens.

2. Take a moment to sit and remain calm.

If you can, sit down and remain calm. As far as I understand, those are the best things to do. None of which I could do. I was terrified, I needed to save my own life, my heart was racing because I had to hike out, swim and get back to civilization. That made my snake bite much worse.

If you don’t do what you can to calm down, the venom can quickly diffuse into your system and drop your blood pressure too low to pump to your head. Sitting lessens your chance of fainting and keeping the bite at or below heart level helps to reduce the flow of venom.

3. Get help ASAP.

Your best chances of survival are if you’re with somebody, have them get help for you. Otherwise, don’t let the fear of raising your heart rate and increasing venom circulation stop you from saving yourself.

I had to have a friend go up and get my motorcycle later on in the evening because I just left it there. It was 3,000-foot elevation and when I finally got back to the road, the 911 operator warned me not to try to ride my motorcycle downhill to get help because I might pass out and go off the side of the mountain.

4. Don’t apply a tourniquet or cold pack.

Contrary to what you might think, it’s better for the venom to disperse than stay concentrated in one spot. Concentration can quickly destroy cells. Allowing it to spread will help dilute the toxin and help minimize tissue damage.

You also want your blood to circulate freely. Cold reduces circulation. Keep your body warm.

5. Identify the snake if you can.

My doctor believed the snake that bit me was a timber rattlesnake. If I’d killed it and brought it in or taken a picture of it, we would have known what kind of specific anti-venom to administer. Be careful when transporting it though, after a snake’s been killed, it can still bite for up to an hour.”

Let my man’s survival be a lesson in both what to do and what not to do, should you find yourself in snake territory.

If you MUST insist on adventuring alone, at least go prepared with something like the Outdoor Survival Crate and the sheer will to live, so you’re not completely screwed should you suddenly encounter venom coursing through your body.

But hey, best case scenario, you’ll end up will a REALLY cool survival story.