THE RAT­TLESNAKE THAT WOULDN’T DIE

WHEN A TEXAS MAN DE­CAP­I­TATED THE POI­SONOUS SNAKE THREAT­EN­ING HIS WIFE, HE AS­SUMED THAT WOULD BE THE END OF IT. HE WAS WRONG.

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Front Page - BY NI­CHOLAS HUNE-BROWN IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY STEVEN P. HUGHES

Be­fore the in­ci­dent— be­fore his body be­came a bat­tle­ground for com­pet­ing poi­sons and his story the sub­ject of zoological cu­rios­ity—Jeremy Sut­cliffe had ac­tu­ally liked snakes. He’d found them beau­ti­ful, even.

Be­sides, the tat­tooed 40-year-old wasn’t some­one who shied away from wild crea­tures. He was an avid out­doors­man who took ev­ery chance he could to camp and fish. That love of na­ture had been part of the rea­son Sut­cliffe and his wife Jen­nifer, 43, had re­cently moved to South Texas from Kansas. The place they’d bought on Lake Cor­pus Christi, a short drive from the Gulf of Mex­ico, was their dream home. Or that’s what it was go­ing to be. At the mo­ment, they were liv­ing in a trailer on their one-acre lot, and the house was still a fixer-up­per. A “to­tal gut job,” Sut­cliffe called it, with the pride of some­one who plans on do­ing the gut­ting him­self.

On a steamy Sun­day morn­ing in May 2018, the cou­ple was tidy­ing their yard in prepa­ra­tion for an evening cook­out with their daugh­ter and her two young chil­dren. At around 10:30 a.m., Sut­cliffe be­gan mow­ing the lawn while Jen­nifer worked on the gar­den. She had just reached down to grab a weed when she saw it: a western di­a­mond­back rat­tlesnake, right next to her hand.

Jen­nifer leaped up as the snake, a me­tre long, rose into a strik­ing po­si­tion, with its dusty tri­an­gu­lar head tensed and its tail rat­tling. “Snake!” yelled Jen­nifer as she backed away. “Snake!”

When Sut­cliffe heard his wife’s cry, he fig­ured she’d run into one of the harm­less rat snakes that of­ten showed up on the prop­erty. He grabbed a shovel to shoo the crea­ture away and jogged around the house to the gar­den. That’s when he heard the rat­tling. His wife was cor­nered be­tween some shrub­bery and the wall of the house, a viper di­rectly in her path.

He first tried to scoop up the snake us­ing the shovel, with­out suc­cess. Then he did what was nec­es­sary: he raised the gar­den tool and brought the edge down hard through the snake’s body just be­low the head, de­cap­i­tat­ing the rep­tile.

Jen­nifer went into the house, her heart ham­mer­ing, while Jeremy headed back to the gar­den. About 10 min­utes later, when Jen­nifer said she was go­ing to let their two small dogs out, he de­cided to move the dead rep­tile. He looked at the crea­ture ly­ing limp on the ground. Its head rested on a paving stone, at­tached to a stub of body.

He bent down to pick up a stick ly­ing next to the snake’s head so that he could flick it away. But be­fore his hand even touched the ground, the snake at­tacked—a blur of mo­tion as the crea­ture launched it­self for­ward. Bury­ing its fangs into Sut­cliffe’s right hand down to the bone, the snake in­jected venom that im­me­di­ately made his hand feel

like it had been smashed by a mas­sive weight. “It bit me!” he yelled in hor­ror.

For Sut­cliffe, it was like some­thing out a zom­bie movie—an un­dead crea­ture’s fi­nal act of re­venge. But the truth is, bites from de­cap­i­tated snakes aren’t un­com­mon. “Rep­tiles can stay alive for quite a long time after sus­tain­ing a life­lim­it­ing in­jury,” says Chris­tine Rut­ter, a vet­eri­nary crit­i­cal-care spe­cial­ist at Texas A&M Univer­sity who has seen her share of snakebites. A de­cap­i­tated snake is like a chicken with its head cut off, only with a much longer sur­vival time be­cause it’s a cold-blooded rep­tile with a slow me­tab­o­lism.

In that mo­ment, how­ever, all Sut­cliffe was think­ing about was that the snake that he’d killed was now try­ing to kill him. The crea­ture’s jaws were clamped around his hand. Des­per­ate to free him­self, Sut­cliffe in­serted the fin­gers of his left hand be­neath the snake’s up­per jaw and tried to pry the fangs free. He man­aged to re­move one of the fangs from his mid­dle fin­ger, but as he tried to pull the head loose, the viper’s jaw clenched again, bury­ing the fang in his ring fin­ger this time.

At the sound of his cry, Jen­nifer, a trained nurse, had come run­ning. When she saw her hus­band strug­gling with the rat­tlesnake’s head, one thought flashed through her mind: he needed med­i­cal at­ten­tion, now. She ran back into the trailer to get the car keys while Sut­cliffe con­tin­ued to yank at the snake’s head un­til fi­nally the fangs came loose and he could fling the viper away.

Jen­nifer told her hus­band to get in the car. She wheeled out onto the broil­ing Texas as­phalt, al­ready on the phone with 911 dis­patch­ers. They were a halfhour away from the near­est hos­pi­tal and she had no idea which of the med­i­cal cen­tres in the area held an­tivenom. All she knew was that they didn’t have much time.

JEN­NIFER SUT­CLIFFE had al­ways been quick to act un­der pres­sure. In Texas, she was a nurse con­sul­tant, but back when she’d worked in hos­pi­tals she’d al­ways been the go-to per­son for CPR—some­one col­leagues would turn to when com­pe­tence and quick think­ing could be the dif­fer­ence be­tween life and death.

ONE THOUGHT FLASHED THROUGH JEN­NIFER’S MIND: HER HUS­BAND NEEDED MED­I­CAL AT­TEN­TION, NOW.

She’s known her hus­band for their en­tire adult lives. They’d met in the sum­mer of 1993, when they were both stu­dents work­ing at a nurs­ing home. She’d liked his sparkling blue eyes and the fact that he was kind. The two be­came friends, then more.

They were mar­ried a cou­ple of years later and went on to have a son and a daugh­ter. Sut­cliffe was handy, a builder and a tin­kerer who worked in­stalling heat­ing and air con­di­tion­ing. He al­ways seemed to be help­ing out one neigh­bour or an­other.

In 2011, at the age of 34, Sut­cliffe was di­ag­nosed with Guil­lain-Barré syn­drome, a rare and mys­te­ri­ous con­di­tion that causes the im­mune sys­tem to at­tack healthy nerve cells. The dis­ease left Sut­cliffe weak and ex­hausted, un­able to work more than a few hours a day, but the cou­ple got through it to­gether. When they bought the house in Cor­pus Christi, it felt like the ideal sit­u­a­tion. While she worked, he would slowly cre­ate their dream home.

Now, as Jen­nifer sped down the high­way, she could feel that fan­tasy slip­ping away. On the phone, the 911 dis­patcher was di­rect­ing her down the high­way to a spot where an am­bu­lance would meet them to bring her hus­band to the near­est hos­pi­tal. Mere min­utes after be­ing bit­ten, how­ever, Sut­cliffe was al­ready feel­ing the ef­fects of the venom cours­ing through his body. When he blinked, he saw noth­ing but black­ness. “I can’t see,” he said, panic in his voice, be­fore pass­ing out. Jen­nifer shook her hus­band with one hand while keep­ing the other on the wheel. Sut­cliffe woke up, only to pass out again. Then he be­gan hav­ing a seizure. The 911 op­er­a­tor told Jen­nifer to pull over and wait in front of a church for the paramedics.

Fi­nally, after the longest 15 min­utes of her life—dur­ing which Sut­cliffe al­ter­nated be­tween bab­bling in­co­her­ently and los­ing con­scious­ness—the paramedics ar­rived. They rushed Sut­cliffe into the ve­hi­cle and took off down the high­way with Jen­nifer speed­ing be­hind. After just 10 min­utes, how­ever, the am­bu­lance pulled over into the park­ing lot of an aban­doned build­ing. When Jen­nifer pulled up next to them, they told her that Sut­cliffe was in bad shape. His blood pres­sure had plum­meted,

A DE­CAP­I­TATED SNAKE HAS NOTH­ING TO LOSE. AND SO THE REP­TILE EMP­TIED ITS VENOM GLANDS INTO SUT­CLIFFE.

and they were wor­ried he wasn’t go­ing to make it to the hos­pi­tal.

“We have to get the HALO,” one of the paramedics said. In­stead of driv­ing to the hos­pi­tal half an hour away, they were send­ing for a he­li­copter that would get him into a dif­fer­ent emer­gency room in 10 min­utes. Mo­ments later, the chop­per touched down and whisked Sut­cliffe away.

RAT­TLESNAKE VENOM is a mir­a­cle of evo­lu­tion—a com­plex cock­tail of en­zymes and pro­teins that, when in­jected into a vic­tim’s blood­stream, acts like a pow­er­ful blood thin­ner, de­stroy­ing skin tis­sue and blood cells and caus­ing in­ter­nal hem­or­rhag­ing. A rat­tlesnake’s fangs are con­nected to venom glands at the back of its head. Snakes can con­trol how much venom they in­ject, and be­cause pro­duc­ing venom takes en­ergy, they typ­i­cally don’t want to waste it. When cor­nered, an adult rat­tlesnake will usu­ally de­liver a light de­fen­sive strike to scare off a threat.

A snake that has been de­cap­i­tated, how­ever, has noth­ing to lose. “Think about it like a Hail Mary pass,” says Chris­tine Rut­ter. “This snake is pained, he’s scared and he’s go­ing to do ev­ery­thing he can to de­fend him­self.” And so the snake that bit Sut­cliffe emp­tied

its venom glands into his hand. The av­er­age snakebite vic­tim is given two to four doses of anti-venom. In to­tal, Sut­cliffe re­ceived 26.

When Jen­nifer got to the emer­gency depart­ment at Chris­tus Spohn Hos­pi­tal Cor­pus Christi–Shore­line, about an hour and 15 min­utes after her hus­band, she found a hec­tic scene. There were six or seven doc­tors work­ing on her hus­band, des­per­ately try­ing to get his blood pres­sure up. Just two hours after be­ing bit­ten, Sut­cliffe’s right hand was enor­mous and swollen, an an­gry red creep­ing up his fore­arm.

She watched with her nurse’s eyes as doc­tors gave him a host of treat­ments— cry­o­pre­cip­i­tate and vi­ta­min K to clot the blood, and dose after dose of an­tivenom. Jen­nifer knew IVs: if a pa­tient needed fluid quickly, you sim­ply in­creased the flow, turn­ing a drip into a steady trickle. But the doc­tors here had put the IV bag into an in­flat­able sleeve that they’d pumped up like a blood-pres­sure cuff, lit­er­ally squeez­ing fluid into her hus­band’s body as fast as they could. She’d never seen any­thing like it be­fore. The sight ter­ri­fied her.

At 5 p.m., after five hours of work­ing on Sut­cliffe, the doc­tors came to a de­ci­sion. Sut­cliffe’s or­gans were fail­ing—they needed to in­duce a coma and put him on a ven­ti­la­tor. Jen­nifer numbly agreed.

At around 3 a.m., one of the doc­tors ap­proached her. Her hus­band wasn’t do­ing well. His blood pres­sure was still dan­ger­ously low. The mean ar­te­rial pres­sure (or MAP) that doc­tors were look­ing for was 65—any­thing lower and the heart can’t push blood through the body. They had Sut­cliffe on the max­i­mum dosage of four med­i­ca­tions de­signed to in­crease his blood pres­sure, but his MAP re­fused to budge above 60. “We’re at the point where there’s noth­ing else we can do,” the doc­tor said. There was a good chance Sut­cliffe wouldn’t make it through the night.

Jen­nifer felt her heart plum­met. She some­how hadn’t reg­is­tered the grav­ity of the sit­u­a­tion. She went to her hus­band’s bed­side and grabbed his hand. “You find that venom and you push it out of your body,” she or­dered. “You can’t die.”

“YOU FIND THAT VENOM AND YOU PUSH IT OUT OF YOUR BODY,” JEN­NIFER OR­DERED. “YOU CAN’T DIE.”

Over the next half-hour, she stood by her hus­band’s side in the ICU, her eyes glued to the mon­i­tor next to his bed. Slowly, mirac­u­lously, she watched as Sut­cliffe’s blood pres­sure ticked up. It made it to 65, then 70. The doc­tors be­gan tak­ing him off the med­i­ca­tions and his pres­sure re­mained sta­ble. By sun­rise the fol­low­ing day, the worst was over.

ON MAY 31, five days after the rat­tlesnake he killed nearly killed him, Jeremy Sut­cliffe emerged from his coma and found him­self in a strange hos­pi­tal room. His mind was foggy. His en­tire body was swollen with more than 20 kilo­grams worth of wa­ter weight. Pain ra­di­ated from his legs, his arms, his bow­els, ev­ery­where. But as he looked around, he saw that he was sur­rounded by fam­ily: his daugh­ter and her chil­dren, his son, Jen­nifer.

The next weeks were dif­fi­cult. The mix­ture of venom and anti-venom had caused se­vere kid­ney dam­age, and Sut­cliffe needed dial­y­sis. The tox­ins had left him with gall­stones, kid­ney stones and fierce ab­dom­i­nal pain. He was so weak he couldn’t stand. The med­i­cal ex­penses piled up—close to $60,000— so the cou­ple started a Go­FundMe ac­count to pay for the bat­tery of treat­ments. The fin­gers of Sut­cliffe’s right hand were badly wounded; the doc­tors tried skin grafts but were un­suc­cess­ful. In the end, they were forced to am­pu­tate his ring and mid­dle fin­gers.

For any­one else, the loss of two fin­gers would be dev­as­tat­ing. But Sut­cliffe didn’t see it that way. After get­ting a glimpse of the worst, he was feel­ing pos­i­tive. About a month after the bite, his kid­neys were work­ing well enough for doc­tors to take him off dial­y­sis. “I’d trade a cou­ple of fin­gers for my kid­neys com­ing back,” he said.

Ly­ing in a hos­pi­tal bed, slowly re­cov­er­ing, he’d had time to think. “When I first came to and things were all right, I’d cry a lot and think about all the dumb things I’d done, the peo­ple I’ve hurt,” says Sut­cliffe. He re­mem­bered skip­ping his kids’ events or ig­nor­ing Jen­nifer while he was off work­ing on a neigh­bour’s house. It wasn’t that he’d done any­thing so ter­ri­ble—just that his new per­spec­tive sud­denly made ev­ery mis­step seem like a tragic waste. The ex­pe­ri­ence had changed him. “The things that used to mat­ter don’t feel like they mat­ter as much,” says Sut­cliffe. “My wife and my fam­ily seem so much more im­por­tant now.”

In late June, he was re­leased from the hos­pi­tal and the cou­ple moved back to their dream-home-in-progress. And one evening in July, they fi­nally had the cook­out they’d been plan­ning. Their daugh­ter and grand­chil­dren came over, as did a neigh­bour. Ev­ery­one sat out in the gar­den, eat­ing ham­burg­ers, grilled corn and pota­toes and en­joy­ing the warm Texas air. The Sut­cliffes paused to take it all in. This was their par­adise, and no snake could change that.

Left: The snake’s head. Right: Jeremy Sut­cliffe dur­ing dial­y­sis in mid-June,after his first am­pu­ta­tion.

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