Fishing writer survives bite from deadly snake
By JOHN RUDOLF
LAKE HAVASU NEWS-HERALD
LAKE HAVASU – It took only a split-second to turn an idyllic day fishing on Lake Havasu into an excruciating encounter with one of the deadliest creatures in nature.
Early on the morning of Sept. 11, Doug Busey, 49, the Tahoe Daily Tribune’s longtime fishing writer, stepped off of a friend’s fishing boat to snap a few photos from a beach on the lake’s California side. He knelt down to get a better angle on a cactus, and a dark blur jumped out at it him. Only then did he hear the rattle and see a snake coiled on the ground before him. Blood spurted from two gashes on his left ring finger.
“I can still see it,” Busey said. “That familiar tail. … It had about six buttons on it.”
Friend Steve Lightfoot raced him to the hospital, where doctors quickly administered 12 vials of anti-venom, potentially saving his life. Nevertheless, the pain was excruciating.
“It feels like your hand wants to explode,” Busey said. “They gave me something for the pain after I started screaming a little.”
The tattoo of a cobra, fangs exposed, on Busey’s right arm did not evade the watchful eye of the nurses at Havasu Regional Medical Center. “They asked, ‘Is that what I think it is?'” Busey said.
With beaches, palm trees, sparkling blue waters and some of the best fishing in the Southwest, Lake Havasu and its surrounding wilderness is an outdoor paradise. But this oasis lies in the middle of a vast desert, home to some of the most venomous snakes in the United States, and it can take only a little bad luck to bring you face to face, or face to fang, with a snake packing enough venom to kill a horse.
Poisonous snakes bite about 8,000 people in the United States each year, and only about 2 percent of those bites are fatal, according to Food and Drug Administration statistics. Permanent scarring and loss of limbs can also result, although with rapid treatment by anti-venom, a full recovery can generally be expected. The deadliest bites are those close to the heart or on a major vein or artery.
Between 30 and 40 percent of rattlesnake bites are “dry,” meaning the snake has injected no venom, said herpetologist Dr. Gordon Burns of Kingman.
The most toxic rattlesnake in North America is the Mojave rattlesnake, known as the Mojave green for its light green coloration. Its bite is particularly deadly because it packs a powerful neurotoxin, which acts on the nervous system, as well as the more common hemotoxin, which actually dissolves tissue where it is injected. The Mojave is common in the Lake Havasu region.
Because of its neurotoxin, a person bitten by a Mojave green may feel no pain for the first 20 minutes or so, Burns said, but that should be no reason not to seek immediate help.
There are a number of myths about what to do after a poisonous snakebite, Burns said. But whether it is the “cut-and-suck” method or wrapping a tourniquet around the affected limb, most folk remedies do more harm than good, he said. Only the administration of anti-venom will reliably reverse the effects of the poison.
There are several other things to avoid. One is getting excited or panicked, which speeds up the heartbeat and increases the circulation of venom through the body. Elevating a bitten leg or lying down is also a big mistake. “Keep the bitten area below the level of the heart,” Burns said.
Some members of the population have also missed the bulletin that it is not wise to tangle with rattlesnakes, Burns said.
“Probably 50 percent of bites are going to be young to middle-aged white males,” he said. “We call them ‘interactive bites’ because they’re messing with the snake.”
Not surprisingly, alcohol plays a major role in these encounters.
“I had one guy who saw one going under a pile of hay, and he grabbed it by the tail and tried to pull it out,” Burns said. “As the story evolves, it turns out he had drank a couple of beers.”
With each vial of anti-venom costing more than $2,000, deliberately tangling with a snake can be costly as well as a life-endangering proposition.
In other cases, such as Busey’s, a snakebite is simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But there was a lesson to be learned even in his purely accidental encounter, Busey said.
“You can just get caught up in the scenery,” Busey said. “You’ve got to remember that beyond those beautiful green trees is desert, and there are some of nature’s deadliest animals out there.”
This is not Busey’s first run-in with dangerous wildlife this summer. In June, a marauding brown bear damaged his truck and boat and attacked his tent with him sleeping inside. Now with a rattlesnake bite added to his woes, fishing buddy Lightfoot offered Busey some blunt advice.
“You’ve got to quit pissing off the wildlife,” he said.
Editor’s note: Busey was hospitalized for a day and has since returned home to Minden and resumed work at Lowe’s in Carson City. Swelling has gone down in his left hand, but his ring finger remains red, black and blue and he is unable to move it. “My spirits are high and I’m praying that my insurance is as good as it’s been in the past,” said Busey, pointing out that each vile of anti-venom costs $2,600. “If not, I’m going to be selling fishing rods and reels.
“It was a frightening experience and without the expediency of people at the hopsital and my friend Steve (Lightfoot), I might not be sitting here.”
To contact Busey to wish him well, phone (775) 267-9722.