Be ‘more mindful,’ urges Tucsonan, who wasn’t
Four years ago, on a muggy August night, Tucsonan Erec Toso came across a silent hunter in the desert surrounding his Northeast Side home.
Toso wasn’t the prey the rattlesnake sought, just an interloper. The snake was only defending itself when it sank its fangs into the fleshy arch of Toso’s left foot.
Toso, a 50-year-old University of Arizona English instructor, writes about the snakebite and his recuperation from it in his first book, “Zero at the Bone: Rewriting Life After a Snakebite.” It will be published April 19 by The University of Arizona Press.
The release date isn’t arbitrary. It coincides with the start of snake season, the time of year when rattlesnakes emerge from winter hibernation.
During the spring and early fall, the reptiles are out during the day, enjoying the moderate temperatures. In the hottest months, they are most active after sunset.
There are an estimated 8,000 venomous snakebites each year in the United States. The Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, which covers the state outside Maricopa County, recorded 202 rattlesnake bite calls in 2006.
This month, the center has been notified of three people and four dogs being bitten.
Many native desert dwellers have only a vague idea of how serious bites can be – and how easily avoided.
“It really is just taking that step of being a bit more mindful,” Toso said. “You will statistically put yourself in an almost negligible category (for risk) if you are a little bit aware.”
All the things he didn’t do that night – wear closed shoes, use a flashlight and carry a walking stick to fend off any snakes – probably would have prevented his snakebite, he said.
It was Aug. 14, 2003. Toso was walking with his two sons from the community pool to his house. Absorbed in his thoughts, he was oblivious to any nighttime desert activity around him.
When the snake struck his sandal-clad foot, it took Toso a moment to register what had happened. Had he stepped into a prickly pear or become entangled in barbed wire?
Then he heard the rattle, like the sound of dry leaves rustling.
His immediate feeling was relief. He was glad that he, not one of his boys, had been bitten. He could handle whatever pain or injury was to result. But he couldn’t bear to see one of them go through it.
Within seconds of the bite, Toso was unable to stand on his left leg. He hopped to the porch, still not alarmed, because the brief prick of the snake’s fangs hadn’t been too painful. He chided himself for his inattention.
He sat on the swing on his porch while his wife called 911. Then the pain and swelling set in. It was as if corrosive acid had been poured on his foot. The spreading heat and growing pressure were unbearable.
It was “unearthly agony.”
“A dragon had hatched and was uncoiling under the narrow confines of my skin. As it uncoiled, its scales tore at my flesh and burned,” Toso wrote.
Shock set in. Toso began to shake.
He had taken a full load of venom – a life-threatening dose – from a snake probably on the hunt for a meal of pack rat or squirrel on that warm, humid night. It was a big guy, too, Toso would notice later when paramedics captured it. He estimated it at 3 to 4 feet long and as thick as a man’s forearm at its widest point.
With heart racing, head cloudy and lips numb, Toso was rushed to Tucson Medical Center, where he spent four days, including two in intensive care.
He was given morphine to relieve the pain. He required nearly 20 vials of Cro-Fab antivenin ($2,000 a vial) to control the venom’s spread.
The swelling ran from his foot to his rib cage. His normally slim leg resembled a log.
Lab readings showed extremely high levels of venom.
A nine-day stay in the hospital was required a month after the first when one of the fang punctures turned into an abscess and led to systemic infection.
Three months after the bite, one of the EMTs who responded on the night of the emergency returned to Toso’s home to remove another rattlesnake from the property.
He recognized Toso and said the bite was the worst he had seen in 12 years as an EMT.
There would be permanent damage to the foot. Toso is unable to run long distances, as he used to, or play soccer. The poison weakened his lungs. The injury damaged connective tissue in his ankle.
He’s taken up cycling instead. His foot stings a little every day.
But Toso doesn’t mind.
People ask how he wrote a 210-page book about a snakebite.
The book is about much more, from Toso’s recovery to personal discovery to conservancy of the desert. It’s about Tucson, family and healing.
The snakebite provided Toso with the vehicle for rewriting his life, literally and figuratively.
Though his recovery would take months, he awoke the day after the bite with a sense of having awakened from a coma.
“Trauma wakes us up to our own mortality. This was a trauma, and it did that. That staying awake requires work,” he said.
One of the reasons Toso loved running was because it served as a distraction from the things in his life that caused him pain, his mother suffering from Alzheimer’s as one example.
But living in a state of indifference or distraction can lead to a different type of pain.
It’s a simple message for all of us who dwell in the home of cactuses, coyotes and creosote.
Pay attention to both the desert in which we make our home and to your own life.
Both are too beautiful and dangerous to walk through without eyes wide open.
Anne T. Denogean can be reached at 573-4582 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Address letters to P.O. Box 26767, Tucson, AZ 85726-6767. Her column runs Tuesdays and Fridays.
Source: Bill Altimari, snake expert at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Source: Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center
IF YOU GO
What: Erec Toso reads from and signs his book.
When: 7 p.m. April 27
Where: Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave.
* Covers all of Arizona, except for Maricopa County. Most of the bites were in Pima County.
Source: Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center
● Baby rattlesnakes are more dangerous than adults because they can’t control their venom. Larger snakes actually can be more deadly.
● You can tell their age by counting the segments on their rattle. Sorry, a snake’s not like a tree.
● They must be coiled or shake their rattles before striking. Don’t use that as a guide: they can bite at any time.
● Rattlesnakes lay eggs. They actually give birth to their young live – about a dozen babies at a time.
● They die if you relocate them. Not necessarily. They can die, but it depends on the snake and how far it is moved.
● Rattlesnakes are aggressive. There are no aggressive rattlesnakes; they are defensive. They attack only rodents. They will not chase you to your car.
● Rattlesnakes strike out at about half to two-thirds of their body length.
● In Tucson, the Arizona diamondback grows 3 to 5 feet long. It can live well into its 20s.
● There are 18 varieties of rattlesnake in Arizona.
RATTLESNAKE MYTHS AND FACTS
Audra and Kyle Bastie’s chocolate Labrador retriever, Maisy, suffered a rattlesnake bite last year, causing her face to swell (right). The dog was treated with antibiotics and painkillers and recovered within three days.
INJURED BUT TREATABLE
The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, the cactuses are blooming. You’re out for an April stroll and bam! There it is, coiled, its tail rattling, ready to strike – a rattlesnake.
What to you do? Walk away, of course.
After all, you are on his turf. He was just minding his own business when you came by and scared the skin off him.
This is the start of rattlesnake season, when the slitherers like to come out during the day.
Here are tips to remember to avoid being bitten and what to do if you are:
● Leave snakes alone: 50 percent to 70 percent of all reptile bites are provoked by they person who was bitten.
● Install lighting to illuminate your yard, porch, sidewalk. Use a flashlight when walking after dark or reaching into dark areas.
● Be vigilant. In Arizona, reptiles are most active from now through October. During the hottest months, snakes are more active at night, when it’s cooler.
● Don’t handle a snake that you think is dead. Dead snakes can bite and inject venom through reflex action for several hours.
If you are bitten
● Go to a health-care facility as quickly as possible to receive an antivenin, even if you are far away. No first aid has been shown to change the outcome of a snakebite. Your outcome is based on how quickly you get to a hospital. It is a progressive disease, and the symptoms get worse the longer you wait. Young children can have the worst reaction because their bodies are smaller and they can’t absorb as much of the venom.
● If possible (unless you are walking), keep the bitten area at or below heart level. Do not put on a constricting bandage. It may slow the blood flow, but you also will start swelling in the bite area.
● If you don’t get treatment, you have a 15 percent chance of death or a high chance of a permanent disability such as nerve and/or tissue damage.
● In the past five years there have been four deaths from rattlesnake bites in Arizona: one in Pima County, one in Maricopa County and two in Cochise County.
Other things coming out to bite
● Scorpions: Last year there were about 2,500 stings in Arizona. For 95 percent of healthy adults, the treatment is just to stay at home.
● Black widow spiders: Again, most healthy adults do fine after being bitten.
● Brown spiders: Victims need to be seen by a doctor because the bite area can cause infection.
● Gila monster bites: Very few people are bitten. Since the 1940s, there has been no recorded death from a Gila monster bite in Arizona.
ADVICE FOR RATTLESNAKE SEASON