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FRIDAY, JULY 6, 2007
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Alex White, a recent graduate of Vanderbilt University, was bit by one of the largest and deadliest of poisonous snakes while he was on an archeological trip in Guatemala last month. White, above with dog Chance, is recovering at his parent's home in Athens. White's experience has given him a new vigor for medicine, and he is interested in possibly specializing in snakebites when he starts medical school this fall.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Alex White, a recent graduate of Vanderbilt University, was bit by one of the largest and deadliest of poisonous snakes while he was on an archeological trip in Guatemala last month. White, above with dog Chance, is recovering at his parent's home in Athens. White's experience has given him a new vigor for medicine, and he is interested in possibly specializing in snakebites when he starts medical school this fall.

Slithery scare
Athens man survives 'worst nightmare' - poisonous snake bite in Guatemala

By Danielle Komis Palmer
dpalmer@decaturdaily.com · 340-2447

A trip to Guatemala on an archaeological dig is an exciting adventure for a 23-year-old college graduate.

But getting bit by a poisonous pit viper snake, spending four days in a Guatemalan hospital and then being rushed home early to the States? Well, it's also very exciting, but in more of a "am-I-going-to-live-to-see-daylight?" kind of way.

Only a few hours after the snake bite, Alex White's toenails were caked in blood. He later learned the poison is a hemotoxin venom - a type that destroys red blood cells and stops blood from clotting. If left in the system long enough, a victim will begin to bleed from the skin and eyes.
Courtesy photo
Only a few hours after the snake bite, Alex White's toenails were caked in blood. He later learned the poison is a hemotoxin venom - a type that destroys red blood cells and stops blood from clotting. If left in the system long enough, a victim will begin to bleed from the skin and eyes.
Alex White of Athens recently survived this bite from one of the largest and deadliest of poisonous snakes while on an archaeological trip with his college professor and fellow students from Vanderbilt University. White thought the monthlong trip would be a fun change of pace for him before he started medical school at the University of Nebraska in the fall. "Fun" was not the adjective that ended up describing the trip.

White arrived in Holmul, Guatemala, on June 14 looking forward to a real-life view of what he had studied in school.

White and the rest of the campers at the site — about 30 fellow students, archaeologists from around the world and Guatemalan manual laborers — slept in tents in the jungle.

On Tuesday evening — the third night he was there — White showered (one of his few so far on the trip). Later that night, he realized he'd forgotten a flashlight back at his tent. He borrowed someone else's flashlight and headed through the jungle to his tent to retrieve his, wearing sandals. He didn't want his feet to get sweaty right after he showered — a decision he now kicks himself for.

As he walked through the dark jungle, White saw a sudden flash near his foot and then felt a sharp pain in his toe. Soon, his entire foot was covered in blood.

"I didn't know what happened at first," he said. But the repeated snake warnings he'd received came flooding back to him.

"I was like, 'Oh, no. This is your worst nightmare come true,' " he said.

Trying to stay calm, he limped back to camp quickly. Within two to three minutes, fellow campers had placed an extractor pump in his foot to pump out the snake's venom.

"About that time it started hurting like no other pain I'd ever felt," White said. "My brain felt like it was going to bash out of my head."

His vision became blurred, his breathing was strained, his heart was pounding and he felt like he might throw up.

"I asked them if I was going to die," he remembered. "I was assuming the worst."

Everyone at camp helped load White into "The Mayan Hunter" — the nickname for a Toyota Tacoma with giant tires that could make it through the jungle. Guatemalan workers piled in the back of the truck, armed with chain saws and machetes to clear any overgrown areas in the rural road.

To the hospital

A four-hour journey to the nearest hospital in Flores became a 21/2-hour journey thanks to an experienced driver. During the bumpy ride, White felt the pain from the puncture wound on his toe spreading up his leg into his belly as the venom worked its way into his system. His leg was swollen to three times its normal size. A rash was spreading up to his knee.

He later learned the poison is a hemotoxin venom — a type that destroys red blood cells and stops blood from clotting. If left in the system long enough, a victim will begin to bleed from the skin and eyes. After only a few hours, White's toenails were caked in blood.

During the ride to the hospital, he kept talking to distract himself and reassure his friends.

"Nina and John (his professor and his wife) were both so amazed at how calm I stayed," he said. "I felt like at times I was telling them it was going to be all right."

When White and his group finally arrived at the hospital, nurses immediately hooked him to an IV with anti-toxin in it. Guatemalans from White's camp decided the bite had to have come from a barba amarilla — a common but poisonous snake in Central America. There was no way to be certain, but it was their best guess.

From the emergency room there, White called his parents from his professor's cell phone.

A surprise phone call

Sitting at their Athens home watching TV, Dale and Steve White were surprised to hear from their son. It was June 19, and the soonest they had expected to talk to him was sometime in July.

"When she answered the phone, it was kind of like I think she thought he was joking," Steve said, remembering his wife's reaction. "Then she put her hand to her forehead, and I knew it was something bad."

Soon, White's determined mother was on the phone with experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after an acquaintance helped connect her.

She spoke with a Nicaraguan doctor who also was a specialist in snakebites. He was able to call doctors at the Guatemalan hospital (no one there spoke English) and inform White's parents of their son's condition and his treatment there.

After that conversation, the Whites were somewhat reassured but still felt helpless.

Unique hospital visit

Meanwhile, their son was getting 10 vials of anti-venom injected in him and enduring a hospital very different than hospitals in the U.S.

Lizards ran across the walls. Ants infested a cup next to his bed. When his IV accidentally came out of his arm and he bled through the mattress, his only way to get help was to send the little boy in the bed next to him to get a nurse.

'Muy Grande Gringo'

Medical workers there were boggled by White's size and couldn't even move him to shower him. A former cheerleader at Vanderbilt, White was much larger than any of the locals they typically treated. They affectionately nicknamed him the "Muy Grande Gringo."

Each day his rash went down a bit more and he got a bit stronger. Doctors said he was lucky only one of the snake's fangs punctured his toe, leaving less venom than two fangs would have.

After four days at the Guatemalan hospital, White was finally safe to fly back to Alabama, where he was taken directly to The University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital.

Back home

On the infectious disease ward there, he immediately became a celebrity among the curious medical staff who had never seen this type of snakebite.

"Everyone was asking me all these questions," he said. When they rolled him through the ER, he would hear choruses of "Here comes 'Guatemala!' "

White was soon released from the hospital with a clean bill of health, and returned home to recuperate with his sore foot.

Today, White's experience has given him a new vigor for medicine, and he is interested in possibly specializing in snakebites in medical school. He joked that his wound may not be sensational enough to satisfy the rumors that flew around Athens about what happened to him in Guatemala.

"People are going to be disappointed," he said, glancing at his scabbed toe. "Compared to the pictures on Wikipedia, (of someone with a similar snakebite) this is nothing."

What’s a barba amarilla?

This venomous snake, also known as a fer-de-lance, is commonly found in Central America and northern South America. This pit viper is characterized by a broad, triangular head and is gray or brown, marked by a series of black-edged diamonds often bordered in a lighter color. The snake strikes swiftly, and its bite can be fatal to humans.

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