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HEALTHWATCH : Local Rattlers Making More Noise This Year : Owing largely to last winter's heavy rains, snakes--and snakebites--are more in evidence this summer.

July 22, 1993|LEO SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Barner Loucks never guessed he'd have to wear heavy boots just to go outside his Ojai home at night.

That is, until late last month.

"I was taking a walk in my sandals. It was dark--there was no way I could see him. He was in the street and I stepped on him," Loucks said. "I felt the bite and I heard the rattle at the same time."

Loucks had, at that startling and painful moment, become the third reported snakebite victim in the Ojai Valley this year. One of the snake's fangs had found its mark in his left heel, the other in a sandal.

All Loucks had been doing was taking a leisurely stroll. But in certain hilly areas this year, that might qualify as a risky activity. Experts say April through October typically are busy snake months, but this year the rattlers came out earlier than usual.

And they have stayed.

Tony Suffredini of the Moorpark College Exotic Animal program said the increase is just a cycle of nature.

Because of last winter's heavy rains, Suffredini said, there is more vegetation. Because there is more vegetation, there are more rodents looking for something to eat. Because there are more rodents, there are more snakes, also looking for something edible.

"The snakes are countywide," Dr. Carl Gross of Ojai said. "You'll find them anywhere there are open areas. We have a lot of semirural developments."

Snakes have made themselves known throughout the county. In addition to the three in Ojai, Los Robles Medical Center in Thousand Oaks reported two snakebites this year and St. Johns Medical Center in Oxnard has had one case.

Loucks described his particular snakebite.

"There was no effect right after the bite, no pain, but I knew I was bit and I knew what was coming," he said. "Your face starts tingling, the muscles start contracting, all your limbs start tingling."

That is just one scenario. Doctors say the symptoms of venomous snakebites can range from very mild to quite severe, depending on a number of variables, most importantly the amount of venom that makes its way into the bloodstream.

Gross said up to 10% of bites are not venomous. Of those that are, he said, doctors can usually tell within a couple hours how serious the effect will be.

When a person is bitten by a snake, health care professionals say, it's extremely important not to panic. But that's easier said than done, especially considering that there probably will be pain and swelling within the first five minutes.

"Don't go running off into the sunset looking for help," said Lillian Bender, an emergency room and intensive care unit nurse at Ojai Valley Community Hospital. "You don't want to speed up the metabolism and speed up the venom going through your system."

Instead, Bender said, calmly head to the nearest hospital. Once there, she said, emergency room personnel will try to assess the severity of the bite.

"With minimal (venom amounts), there is some pain and throbbing at the fang wound," she said. "The more severe cases can develop shock, muscle cramping, a cold and clammy feeling. You could go into convulsions. You could die." Bender said in severe cases there can be tissue damage as well.

Doctors usually treat snakebite victims with a serum, of which several brands are available.

The brand used at Ojai Valley Community Hospital, known as antivenin, is made of horse serum. It comes in packaged form and takes about 30 minutes to prepare for intravenous use.

How much serum is needed depends on the severity of the particular bite. Gross said he probably wouldn't use any serum for mild symptoms. For more serious cases, up to 20 vials of serum might be necessary.

Bender said the intravenous treatment should begin within four hours after the bite. Patients have been known to need hospitalization anywhere from one night (for observation) to several weeks.

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