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SNAKEBITE: JUSTIN SCHWARTZ

July 2002


 

Note from Leighton Oosthuisen, Training Director of Partners Dog Training

I found out about Justin about three years ago. He was just a kid in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Bites as severe as this are uncommon, but they show the potential severity of a bite when treatment is hours away.

Most bites on humans are males between 18 and 24, that are intefering with snakes. This was clearly not the case.

But it is a lesson to all of us that snakes can do and will inflict massive trauma, with permanent tissue damage.

 

This is the story of Justin Schwartz's snake bite.

On July 21, 2002, just after my 13th birthday, I was bitten by a Northern Pacific rattlesnake (the snake was originally identified as a Western Diamondback rattlesnake, but that species is not found near Yosemite). I was located on a trail in a hiking area near Yosemite National Park, California. The bite occurred when I was sitting on a small boulder at a distance of 4.5 miles from the trailhead with my cabin group at camp. I had my arms dangling at my side, and a 5 foot long rattlesnake bit me in the middle of my left palm.

From this point, an amazing rescue took place, taking 4 hours to transport me the 4.5 miles to the trailhead. The camp director had previously called the hospital, and a helicopter was waiting at the trailhead. During the 30 minute helicopter ride I was going in and out of consciousness, having trouble keeping my eyes open. We arrived at the Modesto, CA hospital, where the doctor in the emergency room decided that my case was too severe to treat at that medical center. He told me this, which was the last thing I heard before going unconscious.

Although I was unconscious for approximately the next 24 hours, I have heard about the following events from my parents.

I was taken from the Modesto hospital to the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, the trauma center for Northern California. My snake bite was determined to be too severe for Modesto to deal with. Starting at the time that I left the Modesto hospital and over the course of the next day or two, I was given 30 vials of antivenin (also called antivenom). At the UC Davis hospital I underwent a fasciotomy, which involved the doctors cutting open my arm from the palm up to about the middle of my biceps. This was to relieve the extreme pressure that had built up in my arm from the rattlesnake venom, making my arm as hard as a rock until the fasciotomy.

I spent the next 35 days in the UC Davis hospital, had 8 surgeries performed for cleaning out the dead tissue from my arm, and finally had a skin graft from my leg to close up my arm, which had remained open for 30 days after the fasciotomy until the skin graft surgery. That is 10 surgeries in total at UC Davis.

I was released from the hospital on August 24, 2002, had 4 months of intense occupational therapy, and flew to Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina for a follow-up surgery. This was a vascular flap surgery, during which they took a chunk of skin and muscle from my back, attached its blood vessels to the ones in my arm using microsurgery, and then stitched it to my arm. Although 2 emergency surgeries were required within 24 hours on account of blood loss, the vascular flap was a success, and after 6 more months of occupational therapy, my hand had had a significant improvement in mobility from when I left UC Davis and could move each finger only 2-3 millimeters.

My hand now has fully mobility and is about 80% as strong as it was before, thanks to my Dad and I resuming our rock climbing after a 1 year break due to the lack of strength in my left hand. I use it for about 90% of the things I used to do with my left hand (I am right handed). 13 surgeries, $700,000 worth of helicopter flights, surgeries, and hospital stays (paid by my insurance of course), and 20 months later, I am very happy with the outcome of this experience and my good fortune of getting through all this without any significant loss.

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