Texas man nearly killed after getting bitten by decapitated rattlesnake

Mr Jeremy Sutcliffe picked up the snake's head 10 minutes after he decapitated it, but was bitten in the hand.
Mr Jeremy Sutcliffe picked up the snake's head 10 minutes after he decapitated it, but was bitten in the hand.PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

TEXAS (WASHINGTON POST) - For Mr Jeremy Sutcliffe and his wife Jennifer, it was supposed to be a relaxing day at home. A daughter and granddaughter were coming to visit. A family barbecue was planned for later in the afternoon.

But by the end of that day in late May, Mr Sutcliffe would be in a coma, his body ravaged by rattlesnake venom and doctors unsure whether the 40-year-old would survive.

It all started with some yard work.

To prepare for the day's festivities, Mrs Sutcliffe told The Washington Post that she and her husband decided to tidy up the yard of their home near Lake Corpus Christi in southern Texas.

Mrs Sutcliffe was working in a flower bed when she discovered an invader that was much more sinister than pesky weeds. Hiding among her flowers was a 1.2m-long Western diamondback rattlesnake.

"I reached down to pull out a little area of grass that was growing around one of my flowers and I almost grabbed the snake," she said.

"The snake was not happy about that at all. It came up with its head, so I screamed."

Alerted by his wife's panic, Mr Sutcliffe came over with a shovel and decapitated the snake, a move that for many other animals would have meant swift death.

But what the Sutcliffes did not know is that snakes can still bite and inject venom for at least an hour, if not more, after being decapitated.

So when Mr Sutcliffe went to pick up the snake's head about 10 minutes later, he never expected it to bite him in the hand, said his wife.

"I heard him screaming that it had bit him," said Mrs Sutcliffe, who was in the house at the time.

"I ran out there and he was able to get the snake ripped off his hand."

Then, chaos ensued.

Mrs Sutcliffe, who is a nurse, immediately got her husband into the car and dialed 911 to figure out which of the local hospitals had antivenin. She learned that the nearest hospital that could save her husband was a little over an hour away.

They had only made it about 6km when Mr Sutcliffe started losing consciousness, suffering from loss of vision and having mini-seizures, said Mrs Sutcliffe.

"When he was going in and out he said, 'If I die I love you'," she said, adding that Mr Sutcliffe told the same thing to his daughter while they waited for an ambulance.

"I think he was pretty scared."

While Mrs Sutcliffe said she was scared too, she tried to stay positive.

"I was telling him that he was going to be okay," she said. "I kept reassuring him that the ambulance was on its way, just trying to keep him awake."

He was eventually airlifted to Christus Spohn Shoreline Hospital, Mrs Sutcliffe said.

At the hospital, Mrs Sutcliffe was told her husband was going into septic shock, had internal bleeding and that his blood pressure was consistently "bottoming out".

Eventually, Mr Sutcliffe was put into an induced coma and placed on a ventilator. His organs had started shutting down, his wife said.

"There was actually three different times in the first 24 hours that the doctors told me that they didn't think he was going to make it," Mrs Sutcliffe said.

"As a nurse, knowing what they were talking about was scary. I kept talking to him while he was in a coma and I kept telling him to fight it, and he made it through."

Mr Sutcliffe came out of his coma last Thursday (May 31) and is now in stable condition, Mrs Sutcliffe said. He had been treated with 26 doses of antivenin. Doctors told her a normal bite is usually treated with two to four doses.

But Mr Sutcliffe has a lengthy recovery ahead of him, his wife said, as he is still showing signs of weakened kidneys.

She said her husband has thought about that Sunday morning and talks about wishing he could go back and do just one thing differently.

"The smart thing would have been for him to scoop it up with a shovel of course instead of trying to reach down and pick it up with his hand," she said, adding that Mr Sutcliffe had no idea the snake was not completely dead.

A better option, experts say, is to call animal control to have the snake safely removed.

Although being attacked by a severed snake head seems unusual, Mr Sean Bush, a snake expert at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University told NBC News in 2014 that it's "very common" for snake heads to still bite because it's "a last-ditch effort to survive".

In 2014, a Chinese chef was reportedly killed by the head of a spitting cobra as he prepared serve its body for soup, according to the China Daily.

Reptiles are coldblooded and have lower metabolisms than warm-blooded creatures such as humans, which means their internal organs can work for much longer even after decapitation, according to Gizmodo.

"They get real snappy in the throes of death," Mr Bush said.

Mrs Sutcliffe said she hopes what happened to her husband can serve as a cautionary tale and people will know not to assume a snake is dead just because it appears to be.

"It's a common thing for people to grab a shovel and cut off their heads or whatever," she said. "That's what people do a lot just out of fear."

"One split second can change everything for sure," she added.