published Monday, January 31st, 2011

Snakebite death puzzles experts

  • photo
    A copperhead snake looks up at the Nature Museum in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2010. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Reptile experts and wildlife officials were stunned by the news that an East Ridge man died Saturday after being bitten by a copperhead snake.

Wade Westbrook, 26, was bitten on his upper right arm while handling a copperhead his friend brought over, according to East Ridge Police.

"It's extremely unusual for someone to die from a copperhead bite. It is especially unusual for someone to die as quickly as he did. And it is very rare for someone in a metropolitan area to succumb to a bite. Usually they are able to get help in time," said Dan Hicks, spokesman for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which is conducting a follow-up investigation along with East Ridge Police. "The people at his home said he was blue in the face after 10 minutes."

Emergency medical personnel arrived at the house at 1058 Blanton Drive around 8 p.m. They attempted CPR on Westbrook, then took him to Erlanger hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The snake also was taken to the hospital so physicians would know how to treat Westbrook. Physicians confirmed that the snake was a copperhead, East Ridge police said Sunday night.

The man who literally wrote the book on Southeastern snakes said copperhead fatalities are "rare to nonexistent."

"If he was 26 and healthy, it is highly unlikely that one bite could kill him," said Dr. Whit Gibbons, emeritus ecology professor at the University of Georgia and co-author of "Snakes of the Southeast."

"I'm not saying it couldn't happen, but it would be a first," Gibbons said.

Because of this, Hicks said his agency is not verifying that Westbrook actually died from a snakebite until an autopsy is completed. He said it is possible that some other factor was involved, such as some pre-existing condition.

Westbrook had several exotic snakes and native turtles in his home, Hicks said.

"According to his wife, it seems he was a wildlife enthusiast who had taken it to the next level," said Hicks.

East Ridge Police spokesman Erik Hopkins said Westbrook's friend brought the copperhead over so Westbrook could determine the snake's sex.

Westbrook's Facebook page says he is interested in books that relate to "anything reptile."

Tennessee Aquarium herpetologist Courtney Lewis said Sunday that copperheads usually are hibernating in winter.

"Usually if you leave them alone, they leave you alone. Copperheads typically only bite humans if they feel threatened," she explained.

Hicks said in Tennessee it is illegal to take any native species out of its habitat.

East Ridge Animal Control took the other reptiles from the home. The copperhead has been handed over to the TWRA.

Hicks said the copperhead probably will be given to a wildlife refuge.

Westbrook was the father of one. His widow could not be reached for comment Sunday afternoon.

"She's doing the best she can, considering the situation," Hicks said. "I think she was ready to get rid of the menagerie."

UPDATE: Copperhead death in East Ridge attributed to anaphylactic shock

Have you ever been bitten by a snake?
  • Yes. 24%
  • No. 76%

1062 total votes.

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dude_abides said...

Echo, some people would say you're insane for driving on the freeway with the amount of fatalities that happen on a normal day nationwide. You think you've got a right to disparage this man and his family, for God's sake? Sounds like you've got an axe to grind regarding this man, his hometown, Australia, people who live in mobile homes, the human race... BTW, please use complete sentences. You are an ahole...ahole...a**hole

January 31, 2011 at 7:24 a.m.
mrredskin said...

Echo -

let us all listen to your view on this, since you obviously have a long history of studying reptiles.

wait, you watched the discovery channel while eating cheetos and drinking a colt .40? not impressed.

January 31, 2011 at 7:58 a.m.
ceeweed said...

Echo...there are medications available for those voices in your head...

January 31, 2011 at 8:44 a.m.
jpo3136 said...

I was once stung by a yellow scorpion back in the 90s. It turns out that I have a characteristic that reverses the effects of that particular type of venom. Instead of paralysis, I get convulsions.

Meanwhile, other similar venoms, brown scorpion (US), wasp, bees, and so on: no adverse reaction at all. These stings do not bother me much.

Yet, with these convulsions comes another hazard: mechanical suffocation. If the breathing and the heartbeats get out of rhythm, the victim can smother. A more common death would be asphyxiation by paralysis.

It really gets down to the specifics of the venom and the biochemistry of the person who is the victim. Taking statistics out of a book and saying that it can't happen is a pretty weak answer.

Wait for the report. The textbooks list the most likely outcomes. It takes analysis and probably a physician's evaluation of the patient to figure up what happened.

January 31, 2011 at 11:12 a.m.
jpo3136 said...

Getting bitten on the upper right arm is very close to the muscles which move the lungs and operate the heart.

I survived with little more than convulsions and intense pain because I was stung in the foot. That venom stopped right at my hip.

This involves intense pain and there's no way to relax or control your muscles. I had to be picked up by my clothes and carried to a doctor. In less than a minute, I could not walk on my own. My leg was shaking very badly, and I could not put any weight on it.

After surviving the immediate shock, the pain continued for about 20 hours. During that time, I could not move around on my own. Basically, you just sit down and wait it out. I was able to walk again right at about a day after being stung.

There was no cure or pain killer that will counteract a neurotoxin posioning like it.

At the time, the only my physician could have done was give me an IV of Benadryl. It does not stop the symptoms; it only reduces their effects. My physician withheld the medicine. He told me directly that he would give it to me only if he thought I was going to die. The primary symptom he was looking for was to see if the convulsions in my leg began in my chest. They didn't. I lived.

Until I was tased, years later, I had not experienced anything else that was comparable to the pain and convulsions associated with this poisoning. The taser was more intense, but it stops after five seconds.

My guess is that if he had the same kind of reaction to that snakebite that I had to the scorpion sting, there would have been little or nothing anyone could do for him.

Based on my experience with venom, I'd say wait for the lab reports.

January 31, 2011 at 11:32 a.m.
username2011 said...

"His widow could not be reached for comment Sunday afternoon". Really? tried to contact his window for comment? Classless.

January 31, 2011 at 4:11 p.m.
nwganative said...
  1. The report here says that he was bitten on his right upper arm. The report says it was the left forearm.
  2. Extremities are very tight compartments of tissue, highly vascular. Anything released into that tissue will find its way into the circulation quickly. 3.I am sure Mr. Westbrook's blood pressure was elevated, even though he was a seasoned snake handler[?].That does not help when you have venom injected into your tissue. 4.One of the greatest misconceptions people in general have regarding reactions to drugs, bites, stings, exposure to chemicals, etc. is this: Exposure without ill effects is NOT a permanent guarantee of immunity. Allergic reactions are not perfectly understood by scientists. A medication that helps you today can kill you tomorrow. 5.I question where the snake was 'found' since copperheads hibernate until spring--wood pile?
  3. I also question the value of determining the 'sex' of the snake--family planning?
  4. Copperheads,whose bite and venom is usually not [rarely] deadly, do account for more human bites annually than any other regional species. Check online to see the physical results of some of the bites.You will see some really horrible necrotic wounds. 8.My condolences to the family on a tragic incident.
January 31, 2011 at 7:04 p.m.
cannonball said...

I don't think we have heard the whole story here.

January 31, 2011 at 10:36 p.m.

Most people that get bit by copperheads are not playing with them, and as a result they are bitten on the hand or foot, this could explain the expedited bodily response.

January 31, 2011 at 11:05 p.m.
Echo said...

Dude_abides - You're the Big Lebowski right? Original. I'm the ALIVE a$$hole who paid for the EMS and the hospital care via inflated healthcare and taxes so some white trash dropout could play with an illegally captured, poisonous, wild animal for personal entertainment.

Ceeweed - There are also medications for preventing pregnancy and I wish you mother had used some of it.

Mrredskin - Actually I have a long history of avoiding most brownish, uneven, colored snakes with triangular heads and recessed eyes in the Southeast. The decedent did not.

February 1, 2011 at 12:28 a.m.
dude_abides said...

"Echo was a beautiful nymph, fond of the woods and hills, where she devoted herself to woodland sports. She was a favorite of Diana, and attended her in the chase. But Echo had one failing; she was fond of talking, and whether in chat or argument would have the last word." Wow, I knew Echo was a woodland nymph, but never realized the full ramifications of someone using this sobriquet. The name Echo (capitalized, no less)is by definition unoriginal. Therefore, to disparage someone else's lack of originality while using this nom de plume is bereft of logic and indicative of a brain which probably writhes around and quivers when asked to perform simple tasks like empathizing with others' tragedies. Dismissed.

February 2, 2011 at 8:43 p.m.
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