Snake bite? No help in sight

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A local man bitten by a rattlesnake finds out that heading to the local urgent care is not the way to go; however, animals are in luck, as local veterinarians stock antivenom.

By Vicky Shere / Special to the Malibu Times

A Malibu resident who was bitten on the hand by a rattlesnake while gardening at his home near Topanga Canyon on Easter Sunday drove himself to the local urgent care clinic and was told they don’t stock antivenom. Instead, the clinic called 911 and monitored the resident’s heart rate and pulse. Within an hour he was being treated at Saint Johns Medical Center in Santa Monica, about the same distance from his house as the clinic.

“It was a traumatic experience,” the 46-year-old motion picture industry employee said of his 24-hour ordeal. “I didn’t realize I had awakened the snake. My hand really hurt and my body was very swollen. I wasted time going to urgent care.”

Dr. David Frankel, one of two doctors who work at the Malibu Urgent Care clinic at Webb Way and Pacific Coast Highway, said the facility doesn’t carry antivenom because it has to be administered in an intensive care setting, where the patient is continuously monitored, and because it is in short supply.

“Don’t panic but do call 911,” Frankel, a 30-year emergency room doctor, said. “You have four to six hours before there are symptoms. Paramedics can assess your condition and find the closest hospital with the antidote.” Although local humans have to travel for treatment of snakebite, Malibu’s animal lovers are in luck as there are local resources for their pets.

Veterinarians on both ends of the city offer vaccine that provides months of immunity. The vaccine is not available for humans, although antivenom aids both humans and animals.

Malibu Animal Hospital near the Civic Center and Malibu Veterinary Clinic near Kanan Dume also stock antivenom to treat a bitten animal.

Veterinarians Dana DePerno of Malibu Animal Hospital and Kay Fransen of Malibu Veterinary Clinic say a wounded animal should be brought in as soon as possible. An animal that hasn’t been treated after six hours usually doesn’t survive, DePerno said.

Malibu resident Vanessa Clive, a friend of the man bitten on Easter Sunday, noted the irony in the anti-venom being available at Malibu Animal Hospital while not being stocked at Malibu Urgent Care across the street.

“In an area where there are many snakes, it’s rather curious that there’s antivenom available at a veterinarian [clinic] and not at Urgent Care,” she said. “I’m a little bit outraged. People could be put in harm’s way.

Whether a human or an animal is bitten, though, be prepared for sticker shock at the treatment’s cost. The Malibu resident who went to Saint John’s received a $28,000 bill for emergency room treatment alone, while veterinarian DePerno says uncomplicated treatment for an animal averages between $1,500 and $2,000.

Simple steps to avoid a bite

Experts say that although a rattlesnake bite is potentially fatal, taking simple steps to avoid the viper and staying calm when bitten can lessen the bite’s aftereffects.

Although rattlers in the Santa Monica Mountains, the Western or Southern Pacific rattlesnake, are among the more timid species, they have potent venom, Pepperdine University biology professor Lee Katz said. They only rattle when threatened, so be careful where you step or put your hands.

During winter rattlesnakes sleep in caves or other hiding places. With warm weather, they come out looking for food-squirrels, rats and mice-and give birth in mid-to-late summer, Katz said. The brown, grey or black rattlesnakes have stout bodies and flat, triangular heads. Ranging in length from eight inches to four and-a-half feet, they curl under a plant or bush. The babies are more aggressive because they are preyed upon more often, and their bites are also more toxic, Katz said.

Malibu has the most rattlesnakes this time of year, local expert Bo Slyapich, “The Rattlesnake Wrangler,” said. With weed abatement in full swing, he has gotten eight calls in a half hour for the past five weeks, and two weekends ago, he received more than 30 calls a day.

The former stuntman clears snakes from homes, construction and party sites, horse ranches and movie locations. He also offers snake safety information and training, emphasizing this is at no charge to schools and scout groups.

Slyapich recommends cutting back landscaping as much as possible around the house and on sidewalks. “You have to be able to see where your feet are going,” he said. Slyapich also urges people to keep doors closed, because houses and garages are inviting to snakes.