Emergency treatment for snake bite

Posted on 3 May 2022

A hobbyist snake handler in Limpopo credits the medical staff at Mediclinic Tzaneen with saving his life after a near-fatal snake bite.

“I used to work with wild animals at Letaba River Lodge eco-park, where we had a lot of snakes because of the dense bush and rocky outcrops,” says snake handler Gideon Vorster from Tzaneen. “Someone trained us about snake identification and from then on, I started doing snake-catching as a hobby in town. In February, we had a callout for a snake that was in a ceiling in Nkowankowa. I was told it was a python, but on arrival I realised it was a black mamba, the deadliest snake in Africa.

“When I brought the snake home, we had to take it out to ensure it was in a healthy condition. It was already past its shedding phase (a process that makes them violent and territorial), but weren’t sure if it had been hurt while in the roof. I can’t go into specific details as to what precisely happened while I was handling it ­– but I was bitten on the hand twice. It was simply an unfortunate incident.

“Richard Radue, my fellow snake handler, rushed me to the hospital immediately. I was already experiencing dizziness, nausea, numbness, and pins and needles all over my body. I’m not going to lie, I was scared. But I kept my cool as I knew it would only have made it worse if I got anxious or stressed.

“Once at Mediclinic Tzaneen, I can’t remember much. I just know I was taken to the ER, where they gave me antivenom, an adrenaline shot and some other medication. After I was stable, I was admitted to ICU for the night and discharged the next day.”

A black mamba’s venom is complex as it interferes with the nerves and muscles, resulting in paralysis. The venom is also cardiotoxic, which means it may have a direct effect on the heart. As Dr Gary Middleton, head of ER at Mediclinic Tzaneen, explains, medical management of a snake bite comprises early intervention, administration of antivenom where appropriate, continuous monitoring and management of symptoms and signs suggestive of potential shock.

“The antivenom is injected intravenously because absorption is poor via the muscles,” he says. “In many cases, patients may be put on prolonged cardiac and respiratory support if their heart and lungs are unable to provide oxygen to the body. This combination of respiratory support and antivenom can save a person’s life. Over time, the antivenom will ease muscle paralysis and set the victim on the road to recovery.”

Gideon has nothing but praise for all the staff at Mediclinic Tzaneen. “Hopefully I will be able to catch snakes again soon,” he says. “We’re aware that snakes are wild animals and people shouldn’t handle them without training.”


Published in Emergency

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