Sunday, August 19, 2007

Rattlesnake Country(animal planet)

Loma Linda is an expanding Southern Californian town on the cusp of two harsh worlds. It occupies a scorched hinterland where the urban sprawl of Los Angeles ends and the great South Western deserts begin.

This is rattlesnake country – home to two separate species: the Southern Pacific rattlesnake, and the Red Diamond rattler - with Loma Linda representing the northern perimeter of its range.

Both are capable of causing agonising pain, permanent disability, and the need for amputation with even the most casual strike. In extreme cases - without correct medical attention - they are quite capable of killing a man.

Within a few hours drive of Loma Linda are four other species of rattlers - Mojave, Sidewinder, Speckled, and Western Diamondback…. not forgetting the other potentially lethal creatures that lurk in these parts, like black widow spiders and scorpions.

Where a burgeoning human population encroaches on the natural habitat of deadly predators that have been around these parts for millions of years there’s bound to be problems…

Rescue Team
Loma Linda’s University Medical Centre is home to Venom ER – a unit dedicated to saving the lives of snake bit victims and other poisonous creature-related crises.

The envenomation specialist here is Dr Sean Bush – a pony-tailed professor who speeds between shifts in his vintage Mustang muscle car. But that’s where the fun ends and the serious stuff begins.

With the local population growing by 6% a year and rattlesnakes already in their back gardens, Venom ER isn’t a place for relaxation.

Unfortunately, snakebites don’t always happen at the most convenient moments - the snake rescue team covers over 100,000 sq km – most of it wilderness. Wasted time is perhaps the biggest threat to a victim’s life.

Over 100 paramedics and fire department operatives are on hand to rush the victims to Loma Linda Venom ER. And the quickest way is by helicopter. In fact, Venom ER’s chopper crew are so in demand, they cover on average 50,000 miles every year flying life saving missions.

Strike Out
Fortunately, not all snake strikes are emergencies – in many cases the snake may not puncture the skin. Even when it does it may not release any venom at all. This is known as a dry bite.

All too often, though, the fangs do the job for which they were intended. In an instant the snake injects a lethal cocktail of proteins and enzymes straight into the victim’s bloodstream like a hypodermic syringe.

With a Southern Pacific rattler bite, huge amounts of swelling forms almost immediately around the bite. A wounded limb gradually turns a stomach-churning shade of black as the venom destroys tissue and begins killing the victim; essentially digesting it from within.

DR Bush explains the subsequent deadly pattern: “Creatine kinase (CK) is an enzyme molecule that’s inside the muscle cell. And as the muscle cells are destroyed and they rupture the CK leaks out into the blood stream and flood the kidney and clogs them up.”

In the treatment room Dr Bush flushes the patient’s body with fluids and keeping the vital organs working. The patient is also administered with antivenom – antibodies that are harvested from animals like horses, rabbits and goats that have an immune response to venom.

Disaster Recovery
Contrary to popular belief, antivenins aren’t a miracle cure. For a start it’s hard to predict the impact of a bite from the snake’s size – as even the venom effects for bites of individuals the same each species can vary.

Because all our metabolisms are different, we all have a different reaction to the venom - making the effects on victims almost impossible to predict.

Scientists now believe that venom is far more complex than first imagined – essentially, it seeks out a weakness in the victim’s constitution which the venom can exploit.

One of Dr Bush’s most memorable cases was a patient who was bitten by an escaped ‘pet’ Southern Pacific rattlesnake. It began with an agonising 15 second bite that almost cost him his life.

After 70 hours on the critical list and a week in intensive care, the patient’s body was still suffering violent tremors, as if it was possessed by a demon - five days after the man had been bitten. He was given 58 vials of the Crofab antivenin; to Dr. Bush's knowledge, a world record.

It can be a long and agonising road to recovery after a rattle snake bite – providing the victim is lucky enough to make it to Venom ER, that is.

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