San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Arenal Report

The doctor became the victim this fall when biologist Gloria Dempsey was bitten by a snake. Telling me about it recently, she imparted some useful information for the snakebitten, of which, fortunately, there have been very few at Lake Arenal. 

Gloria and her husband have lived for years near Nuevo Arenal, usually sharing their house with rescued animals and birds, with Gloria often coming to the rescue or dispensing advice in the absence of veterinarians on that side of the lake. Luckily, she knows a lot about snakes and so reacted appropriately when struck while walking in sandals after dark near the forest on her property. She turned her flashlight on the snake and identified it as a young jumping pit viper. Here’s Gloria’s account from there: “Knowing that often you have to lie in the clinic for hours on an IV drip with antivenom, I packed an overnight bag and a book with a picture of the snake. Meanwhile, I carefully monitored my symptoms. Other than a bloody gash and two puncture wounds, I had no other symptoms. After about 40 minutes, the bite site still looked the same without swelling or discoloration. But I have treated enough animals to know that the symptoms may not fully manifest until 15 or so hours later. Ultimately, I felt slight nausea and dizziness and a strange taste in my mouth. I knew the first two symptoms are associated with snakebite, but could also be simply fear, but the taste sensation is a unique symptom of snakebite. 

“[I] arrived at the Tilarán clinic around midnight and still showed no more symptoms. I decided at that point to just request observation and a blood test. I wanted to be near the clinic should I have a crisis. I told the nurse I didn’t want any antivenom because I had no symptoms to treat. You should only have antivenom if you are showing serious snakebite symptoms. … About 25 percent of people can have an allergic reaction to antivenom made in horse serum. 

“… We were sent to Cañas to get the blood test to see if I was having any coagulation problems. My blood test turned out normal and we headed back home, very relieved.”

Gloria attributes her minimal symptoms to the snake’s having struck a glancing blow rather than a frontal bite that could fully squeeze the venom sacs. Instead she probably received only a drop or two of venom and soon returned to her role as doctor rather than victim. 

–Alex Murray

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