Fred Dickey

Fred Dickey is a writer living in Cardiff, CA, USA

RATTLESNAKE BITE WON'T POISON HER LOVE OF ADVENTURE

On Monday: Abilene "Abbi" Bushong wants what money can't buy, and she finds it on the trails and in the woods.

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It's a wonderful thing to love nature, even knowing that nature doesn't always love you.

Bushong is a woman who would rather be tromping the dusty hills of the backcountry than sipping the best champagne at La Valencia in La Jolla.

This story involves a rattlesnake that would have preferred she enjoy the champagne.

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May 2012 was a month when creatures of the backcountry were in full and fine fettle, including a certain reptile that will shortly make his appearance. But for Abbi, it was just a little afternoon hike in the sun.

"I did not see a snake. I did not hear a snake," she says. "There was no rattle, but I felt the fangs. It was like two very fine needles going into my ankle. I knew it was a rattlesnake. It was more shocking than painful, initially. The pain came later. I just said, like, ‘OK, I've just been bitten by a rattlesnake. I need to get out of here and not panic.'"

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Abbi is a 25-year-old student at San Diego State University out for a drive in the hills of East County. She and a friend from school, Julie Aiellts, have taken the Pine Valley freeway exit and decide to stop and do a little exploring on a dirt path.

Abbi is wearing "barefoot" shoes, which is to say almost no shoes at all, since they are barely adequate for the family room and hardly fit for an overgrown trail.

As an experienced woodswoman, Abbi should be ashamed of herself for wearing such footwear in rough country. But as we all know, not all decisions we make will be featured on our highlight film.

As short jaunts tend to do, the trip turns into a long hike into heavy brush instead of the walking path they started out on. Along the way, Abbi sees a baby rattlesnake on a rock, some racer snakes slithering rapidly through the brush and an uncollegial kingsnake snacking on a fellow serpent. There is a restless habitat at Abbi's feet.

When the snakebite happens, the women are descending a ravine about three miles from their car. Abbi's dilemma is that she has to get out of here, but movement, especially vigorous exercise, will only pump the venom faster through her bloodstream. She has no choice - she has to get help.

She takes stock. Slim hopes of it being a non-venomous dry bite disappear with the first throbbing. She sees her ankle start to swell and feels the pain intensify.

"I'm in the middle of the wilderness, right? I need to get myself out. I don't want to just sit here and die. We're in very rugged terrain. I walk close to an hour, going slower and slower as the pain continues to grow, and as the swelling starts to move up my leg. Stiffness. Burning. Fire inside the leg. I keep thinking: One step, then another. Car. Hospital.

"I'm scared. I'm thinking I need to get out of here, but I can't walk anymore. I have a whistle on me. I give it to Julie. She climbs to the top of the next hill and starts blowing it. I pull my cellphone out again, and I finally get a line.

"I call 911. The dispatcher answers. I start crying because I'm finally expressing what's going on inside me. Julie is standing on top of the hill and making noise and waving her arms. The dispatcher stays on the line with me. He contacts firefighters who quickly start looking for us.

"It takes about an hour, but he stays on the phone with me until they find us. I tell him I'm not sure if I'm going to die or if my leg is going to be amputated. I remember a story of a man who got bit on the hand and he died within an hour. I am really afraid."

About two hours after the bite, the rescue helicopter arrives. Despite the increasing pain, Abbi, who has an irrepressible personality, starts to lighten up.

"I calm down a lot. It kind of becomes humorous, and that helps a little with the pain. Here I am in the middle of the wilderness and all these people are coming here to save me.

"I look at the guy who is strapping me into the helicopter harness. We had this instant of recognition from high school. I ask, ‘Hey, did you go to El Cap(itan)?' He says, ‘Yeah.'"

Abbi is soon transferred to a medical helicopter and then whisked off to Grossmont Hospital. The entire episode, from snake bite to hospital takes about three hours.

When she gets to the hospital, the pain has become excruciating. They rush her into treatment and start the antivenom and up the painkillers.

This is not Grossmont's first go-round with rattlesnake bites. They "get it," as we say. Since Abbi didn't see the snake, its type is unknown, but by measuring the gap between her fang punctures, they can gauge the size. They tell Abbi she was bit by a full-grown snake. (That baby-rattler bites are more dangerous is not correct, most experts agree.) The hospital also tells her that on a scale of 1 to 10, the volume of venom she received was an 8. The snake unloaded on her. One irritable reptile.

During her three days in the hospital, Abbi was not a happy patient. "It was terrible. It was traumatic." But she clarifies that that wasn't Grossmont's fault. She is grateful for their care. However, the experience of being in a small windowless room for all those hours drove this outdoors junkie up the institutional walls.

"They kept pumping me full of antivenom. I think about 25 vials. They also gave me a lot of pain medication, and I hate injecting chemicals into my body. I felt even sicker when I was in the hospital. I just lay there for days. I had IVs in both arms. They woke me up day and night to check my vitals and take my blood because they needed it to check my platelets. "Basically, what happens when you get bit by a rattlesnake is the venom starts to digest you from the inside. There were times they couldn't even get blood anymore, but they just kept poking me again and again. But, that's what they have to do."

The poison from the wound started to creep up her leg with both pain and swelling. The pain was manageable because of medication, but it was traumatic to see over many hours how the swelling came closer and closer until it finally stopped at the hip joint as nurses marked its progress with Sharpies.

After three days, the crisis had passed and Abbi was released. However, a couple of days later, follow-up blood tests revealed that a residue of the venom remained in her system. She was told there was a possibility of a recurrence.

Back to the hospital for three more days of treatment. Finally, she was released to go home for R and R with a scary memory and a really good story.

She was fortunate to have no after-effects of the bite, no dead flesh, no paralysis, not even nightmares. For a while, she avoided bushes, which was probably more prudence than paranoia. She has also made her peace with the assaulting snake, which is out there hunting gophers with no thought given to his set-to with Abbi, which he won, by the way.

"The animal was completely justified. Any creature would have defended itself in that situation," she says in let's-be-friends mode.

"It was very scary," Abbi says. "But it was a really cool experience, too. An adventure."

Whatever works for you, Abbi.

 
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