Nelson Drinkwater admits grabbing a timber rattlesnake by the back of its head was a dumb idea. Yet that's what he did Thursday evening - and the snake bit him on his right hand.
The Little Egg Harbor Township man was on his way home on County Road 679 in Tuckerton, Ocean County, after an afternoon on the river with his family near Bass River State Park when he spotted a large timber rattlesnake, about 4 feet long, trying to cross the road.
Drinkwater, 24, and his mother, Donna, both of whom are snake enthusiasts and self-described animal lovers, stopped to help the snake avoid becoming road kill.
He stopped his truck so hard that tire tracks were left on the pavement near the intersection of Chatsworth and West Stage roads. He got out to look at the animal and then used a large stick to pin it down. Then, as he had been trained to do with other, non-venomous species, he grabbed the snake by the back of its head in an attempt to pick it up and carry it to the side of the road.
Instead, the snake slipped at least one of its fangs into Drinkwater's right hand.
The actual bite, Drinkwater said, felt like a gnat landing on his hand. Almost immediately the venom, which causes blood to thin and tissue to liquify, made his hand and mouth feel like pins and needles.
His tongue began to swell.
The pins and needles sensation began in the other hand. Up one leg, then the other. He threw the snake to the ground. He looked down and saw blood gushing from what seemed to be a pinprick.
"It was the smallest, most bleeding wound I have ever had," he said.
Donna Drinkwater was terrified when she saw the whites of his eyes and was scared he would have a seizure. They knew Nelson Drinkwater had just a short time to get to a hospital, where he could start antivenin treatments. Donna Drinkwater drove them to the Bass River State Park ranger station to call for help.
Nelson Drinkwater ultimately was airlifted to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, Mainland Campus in Galloway Township, where he was in serious condition Friday in the Intensive Care Unit. He will receive antivenin treatments until at least this evening.
His doctor, Frances Loftus, medical director of ICU at Mainland, said Drinkwater runs the risk of losing his hand if the severe swelling stops bloodflow and nerve messages to the tissue. If there is enough tissue damage, Drinkwater could develop kidney damage or even failure, Loftus said.
The pain is severe - Drinkwater is on intravenous pain medication and Benadryl to help with the allergic reaction. He said his body feels as though it has a severe sunburn, with his eyes feeling raw and swollen. The hand that was bitten is so swollen that it looks like a blown-up rubber glove. He sits much of the time with a large ice pack over his right hand to help with the inflammation.
It might come as a surprise that there are timber rattlesnakes in South Jersey, but there is a unique and isolated population of the state-endangered viper that lives in the dry sandy flats of the Burlington and Ocean County pinelands. The snake is the only venomous species in South Jersey and it is known among biologists for being extremely docile and calm, rarely biting humans except in defense, said Dave Golden, a herpetologist with the Department of Environmental Protection who studies the snake.
Snake bites in the region are so rare that Golden said the last incident he remembers was at least five years ago, when a dog and a man were bitten near Oswego Lake, Burlington County.
Some of the doctors who treated Drinkwater at Mainland had no idea the species was even found in the area. The last snake bite the hospital treated was several years ago when a girl was bitten by an illegally owned exotic viper.
"We know how to treat the snake bite, but I was kind of surprised that this kind of snake lived in this area," Loftus said.
The hospital keeps a small amount of the antivenin at the Mainland Campus for the initial dose, said spokeswoman Jennifer Tornetta. But it has an agreement with other area institutions, including Shore Memorial and the Cape May County Zoo, for additional doses.
Each dose is extremely expensive because it is a rare and costly product to produce, said Brett Greenfield, attending physician with the ACRMC Mainland emergency department, who treated the last venomous snake bite victim at the hospital. A victim may need between four and six doses, given six hours apart, and each dose costs about $13,000, Greenfield said.
Drinkwater grew up with snakes as pets and has been bitten before by non-venomous species. Even the day after he received the most serious snake bite of his life, he still talked about the animal that bit him with passion and excitement. It was the second time he had seen a timber rattlesnake in person, and the first time he laid hands on the species. He wanted to help the animal cross the road without injury because traffic is the biggest threat to the species.
Even after he realized he'd been bitten, Drinkwater wanted to make sure the snake was off the road and in the bushes; he didn't want the snake to get injured, even after he received what could have been a life-threatening injury. So Donna Drinkwater flung the snake with the stick into the woods, where it landed on a tree.
But Nelson Drinkwater said that as much respect as he had for snakes before, he has to give even more space and respect in the future. He'll still stop if he sees a rattlesnake trying to cross the road. But instead of using his hands, he'll make sure he uses a very long stick.
If he can't find one? The snake will be out of luck and left to cross the road on its own.
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