What It Really Feels Like to Get Bit by a Rattlesnake

Janette Sherman, 38, a recent transplant to Colorado, recalls how a casual walk with her dog last month turned into a frantic trip to the ER—and the mistakes she made along the way.

On one of the first warm days of April here in Denver, I set off on my lunch break for a hike in nearby Bear Creek Lake Park. I work for a cycling company where most people ride for an hour in the afternoons, but I had my dog with me that day and he needed a good walk.

I moved to Colorado last year from California, and my boss had warned me about rattlesnakes on the trail—especially in the spring, when the ground starts to warm up and the cold-blooded critters look for places to soak up some sun. Still, I’ve encountered snakes before and wasn’t overly concerned: I was wearing shorts (instead of pants and snake gaiters, like some experts recommend), and certainly wasn’t watching the ground every step of the way.

Almost a mile into my hike, I felt a sharp, sudden pain on my ankle, like I’d been stung by a wasp. I looked up, expecting to see a bug flying away. Then I looked down and saw the obvious puncture wounds.

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I glanced behind me and saw the snake, coiled up, ready to strike again. It wasn’t particularly large—its coil was maybe 6 inches across—and it hadn’t rattled, the warning sign that often alerts people to back away. I wasn’t sure what kind of a snake it was, but I knew I should call 911 just to be safe.

The dispatcher asked me if my bite looked like a horseshoe; I learned later that horseshoe-shaped wounds come from nonvenomous snakes with tiny teeth all the way around their mouths. When I told her no, there were three distinct holes (which indicates the fangs of a venomous snake), she calmly told me I should get to a hospital.

But at that point I still felt OK, and was embarrassed to make a big deal about things. Even though the dispatcher wanted to send an ambulance, I told her I’d walk back to my car—the long way, since I refused to backtrack past where the snake had been—and drive myself to a fire station down the road.

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As I walked, my foot began to swell and hurt badly. A driver on the road saw me limping and gave me a ride to my car, and I managed to get myself to the fire station. I was sweating a lot more than normal, and my lips and face had started to go numb. Now I know that overexertion can speed up a person’s reaction to snake venom and make symptoms worse. Looking back, I should have waited for help to arrive.

At the fire station, the EMTs took my shoe off and used a Sharpie to mark how far the swelling had spread—up my leg and across my foot—in the 30 minutes since my bite. This would help the doctors determine how serious my case was, they explained. (They also told me that commercial “snake bite” kits are worthless, but that hiking with a permanent marker is a good idea for this very reason.)

I asked if I could go to an urgent care center, but the EMTs told me that only major hospitals would have antivenin, the technical name for what’s also known as anti-venom. About two out of five rattlesnake bites are what’s known as a “dry bite”—not venomous—but with my swelling and facial numbness, that didn’t seem to be the case.

An ambulance took me to Saint Anthony’s Hospital in Denver, where the paramedics’ suspicions were confirmed. But the antivenin had to be…

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