Swift death heightens concern over deadlier toxins in local snakes
October 16, 2010 (San Diego’s East County) – A 67-year old fly fisherman from La Jolla stopped breathing minutes after being bitten by a rattlesnake while wading across a stream near Cuyamaca Reservoir.
William “Skip” Price was conducting a steelhead trout survey with four other volunteers when he stepped on the snake and was bitten on the foot. He was wearing water sandals, not waders or boots, which could have prevented the deadly injury.
Gary Strawn of Santee, conservation chairman of San Diego Fly Fishers, told the Union-Tribune that Price stopped breathing within minutes, and that Strawn and other performed CPR for about 20 minutes until paramedics arrived. A Sheriff’s helicopter air lifted the victim to Palomar medical Center in Escondido, where he was declared dead at 1 p.m. today.
Strawn never saw the snake, but concluded it must have been a large one because the bite marks on Price’s foot were an inch and a half across.
Emergency guidelines urge snakebite victims to seek immediate medical care—an option not readily available in backcountry areas. But most medical experts have long said that rattlesnake victims who receive medical treatment within the first hour are likely to survive. Price’s rapid death highlights concerns raised by a UCSD toxicologist, who believes rattlesnake venoms locally have evolved to become more toxic than in the past.
“The venom from rattlesnake bites in San Diego County is becoming more potent, causing an extreme reaction in patients, toxicologists at the University of California, San Diego Medical Center reported,” according to a June 2008 10 News article which said USCD toxicologists had reported unusually powerful snakebites for the second year in a row. Bites, often from the Southern Pacific rattlesnake, had led to severe weakness, trouble breathing and low blood pressure among patients. Within minutes, the victim can get lightheaded, collapse and go into shock, according to the report. http://www.10news.com/news/16552122/detail.html
Dr. Richard Clark, director of medical toxicology at UCSD and head of the local division of the California Poison Control System, told 10 News in that interview that the reason for the increasing toxicity was unknown. "Some speculate that with the modern world encroaching on nature, it could be survival of the fittest," he said. "Perhaps only the strongest survive." A 2010 interview with Clark confirmed that the number of serious reactions has remained higher than in the past.
UCSD is working to develop more powerful anti-venom. But such treatments can work only if patients receive medical treatment promptly—a feat that is not always possible in remote areas of East County.
With San Diego's warm climate, snakes can be a year-round hazard. Never hike through brush or water where you can't see what you're walking on. On the trail, wear hiking boots and jeans. Avoid reaching up onto rocks or boulders, favorite places for rattlesnakes to sun themselves, and never reach into rocky crevasses or brush. If you hike with your dog, keep the dog on a leash and on the trail with you at all times. If you hear a tell-tale rattle, freeze, locate the snake, and back slowly away.
While bites to the head, neck or torso are considered the most dangerous, as Price's case shows, even bites to the extremities can be fatal. Carry a cell phone when hiking to call for help if needed, and always seek prompt medical attention if bitten.