The Snake Doctor

Because there is always more than one solution to a problem, a world-renowned snake expert and venomologist has joined the faculty at ECU and launched a search for an alternative anti-venom, the traditional remedy for snakebites.

GREENVILLE - Ten-year-old Ashton Rasberry was helping his younger brother build a treehouse in the woods behind their house in Washtonburg, North Carolina, in Greene County. While his brother stayed in the treehouse cutting boards and nailing pieces together, Ashton climbed down to gather more wood.

“I walked out there and looked to where I thought the wood was, but then I guess it was about ten feet further,” recalls Ashton about his search for wood. It was a cool fall day in mid-October. “I couldn’t see the wood pile because it was kind of grassy, and I looked for it and I got down low, and I swung my leg around and it bit.”

A copperhead snake was hiding in the wood pile. In a matter of seconds, it bit Ashton on the lower leg and retreated deeper into the wood pile.

“It was so fast, but it felt like five or six wasps stinging me at the same time,” Ashton says motioning to where the snake had bitten him. “At first I looked around and I couldn’t see anything. And then I looked at my leg and I thought it was just briers, but I saw a little bit of bruising, and I started running.”

The venom was already taking effect. The leg started hurting badly and Ashton was having trouble running. He found his brother in the treehouse and explained what had happened. His brother noticed the bite marks and realized what had happened. He quickly applied a tourniquet and helped Ashton to their house. They alerted their grandmother who was staying with them. She called the boy’s parents.

“And as a parent that’s one of your worse fears, you know of the top 5, this is one," says Beth Rasberry, Ashton’s Mom. "We just prayed. We prayed the whole way there. And so we got to the hospital and my husband got the boys out while I parked the car and that’s when it hit me and this is really happening. But as I walked in, the receptionist grabbed by arm and said it’s ok, the snake doctor is here.”

Dr. Sean Bush is the snake doctor. You might get that impression from the collection of snake fangs on his bookcase. There’s also a DVD of the television show he starred in, Venom ER. I met Dr. Bush in his office at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine. He joined the school in the summer of 2013 because North Carolina leads the nation in, you guessed it, copperhead snake bites.

“Everything was good in California but I was looking for a new challenge and the snakes here presented that,” said Dr. Bush as he used tongs to retrieve a cloth bag from a drawer of his desk. “I knew you were coming so I wanted to show you something. This guy is dangerous big time.”

As he gently sat the bag on his desk, I learned more about his interest in snakes. Dr. Bush combined his desire to be a doctor with a lifelong interest in reptiles to specialize in treating the bites of snakes and other venomous creatures. He’s written more than 50 publications about treating bites and stings. He’s traveled the world lecturing about snakes and snakebites, and appeared on dozens of television shows to talk about snakes. It’s a passion and a mission.

“Snakes are one of the most dangerous animals on the planet, they really are, and so people have learned through the millennia to treat them with respect, which I’m doing with this guy,” said Dr. Bush as he opened the bag, using a metal hook and a long rod with pincers on the end. The opening revealed a 10-foot-long timber rattlesnake. The creature looked around, began flicking its tongue, and slowly slithered out of the bag. Its rattle was shaking and the sound seemed to echo off the walls. Dr. Bush picked it up and lowered it into a white plastic bucket that had warning stickers plastered all around. The stickers warned: POISONOUS SNAKE INSIDE. I stepped back slowly.

“Snakes can be dangerous, even deadly, but I don’t think snakes are innately evil, they’re just a snake,” he said smiling.

Dr. Bush let the snake crawl around his office a bit. It even curled up on the lower shelf of a bookcase before he used the hook and tongs to pick it up and place it back in the bucket. He quickly put the lid on.

“See how I did that?” Dr. Bush explained as he moved the bucket to a corner and opened a cabinet to retrieve another snake that was inside what appeared to be two clear plastic containers. “What I want people to understand is that these animals are protected. They are endangered in part of their range. The timber rattlesnake is an American icon. The same is true with the eastern diamondback. So why would you kill this magnificent animal? You don’t have to kill it. You’re human, you’re smart, you can use tools, you can move it places where it can thrive and survive.”

Dr. Bush then used the hook to lift a copperhead out of the case. This is the creature that brought him from California. The copperhead is one of six species of venomous snakes in the state. The list also includes the rattlesnake, cottonmouth and the coral snake.  Dr. Bush treats about one snake bite victim per week. He plans on doing a study on when anti-venom is needed to treat a bite because anti-venom costs about $2300 and it can cause side effects. Because the bite of a copperhead is not as toxic as other snakes, he wants to compare how patients treated without anti-venom recover from a copperhead bite with how patients who are treated with anti-venom recover.

Anti-venom is constructed from the venoms of different snakes. It’s made to be generic for all pit vipers, which include rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths. There are different anti-venoms used to treat the bites of black widow spiders and coral snakes.

“As soon as the snakes fangs penetrate the skin and go into the subcutaneous tissue, it begins to digest it, and digestion can’t be reversed, you have to stop it," explains Dr. Bush. “And the sooner you stop it, the less healing process you will have to do and it may help you to avoid serious injury. However, I believe depending on the type of snake, it is often better to simply let the venom dilute in the bloodstream as opposed to applying a tourniquet and letting it pool in one extremity, where it can cause tissue damage.”

As Dr. Bush gently lowered the copperhead back into the double walled holder case, he explained his advice for those who are unlucky enough to be bitten by a snake. Forget what you have seen in the movies when it comes to a snake bite. Dr. Bush says don’t apply a tourniquet, which is always what the cowboys do in the movies. That keeps the venom from diluting in the bloodstream and instead, concentrates it one area. That actually increases tissue damage. Instead, simply get to the hospital as quickly as possible. And if you happen to see a snake along a path you are walking, stay two giant steps away.

“The snake can only strike about one-half, or maybe two-thirds of its length, so if you are out of its strike range, you’re fine,” says Dr. Bush, as he pulls out his phone. “You can take pictures of it, send it to your friends, whatever you want.”

As for Ashton, although his leg still shows a bruised area, he will fully recover. Because Ashton got to the hospital quickly, Dr. Bush was able to administer the anti-venom and that prevented much tissue damage.

“I learn a little more from each patient,” says Dr. Bush. “I’m glad I’m here, not just because I could help Bladen but there are a lot more patients and a lot more snakes out there.”

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