Against the Odds: Snakes in Your Suitcase
On March 25, 2008, a friend emailed me to cancel an appointment we’d made to meet in Washington, DC. “Can’t make it,” the cryptic message read, “I’m in the hospital.” “For what?” I wrote back. “I was bitten by a rattlesnake. It’s all over the news.”
It was. Rattlesnake bites man in the bedroom of his elegant suburban Arlington, Virginia, home.
Andy Bacas, an investment banker and part-time high school rowing coach, had taken his team to Summerton, South Carolina, for a week of practice. His spare suitcase, filled with extra equipment, lay open on the front porch of the bunkhouse where he was staying until the last day of the trip, when he threw dirty clothes on top of whatever was in there and zipped it up for the ride home. Inside was one item Bacas had not meant to pack.
Bacas returned from the trip late Friday night—it was Good Friday—and put his suitcase in his living room. It stayed there all weekend: on Saturday, he brought his wife Nina and one of their four children to the airport for a trip to Mexico, and the rest of Easter weekend was filled with parenting duties and family visits. Finally on Monday morning after the kids had left for school, he brought the suitcase up to his bedroom to unpack.
At which point he was dealing with one irked rattlesnake.
He opened the suitcase, pulled out the dirty clothes on the top, and reached in deeper amid some tools and ropes for the rest of the clothing. Then something happened to his hand.
“At first it felt like an electric shock,” he says. “But then I thought I’d seen something move in my peripheral vision. I looked at my right hand and saw two red marks. That’s when I knew I’d been bitten by something.”
In the 1980s, Andy Bacas had served for seven years as a US Naval Flight Officer, ripping up the skies in F14A fighter jets. Not only did he know about survival and first aid, he was not about to be intimidated by some fang marks in his hand. He went downstairs, got a set of barbecue tongs, and returned to the suitcase. He lifted things out item by item until he saw the culprit, a relatively small brown snake in a perfect coil. It was a canebrake rattlesnake, he’d later learn, one of the deadliest in North America.
Bacas closed and zipped the suitcase. “That was the single best thing I did,” he says. “But I did it partly because I was thinking: If I call for help and I do not have a snake here, they will not believe me.”
He called 911 and, he says, gave out too much information. “Those calls are public record. If I’d just said it was a serious emergency, only the rescue squad would have been there.” But as soon as he said his name, address, and “snake bite,” every TV station in greater D.C. had trucks racing to the scene and reporters calling his neighbors, his children’s schools, and his 86-year-old mom, who lives nearby.
The first-responders and the television crews were far more excited than Bacas was. He remembered from his training that there are two major classes of poisonous snakes: Those whose venom attacks the nervous system (the military trainers call them “step and a half” snakes because you only get that far after a bite), and those whose venom affects the bloodstream, preventing clotting and potentially causing internal bleeding. Rarely, he knew, do adults treated promptly die from the latter kind of bite.
For Bacas, the only question was whether he could be treated promptly enough. Radio calls from the ambulance had determined that the closest hospital did not keep a supply of anti-venin. While the ambulance hurtled toward the next hospital, Bacas called his wife, Nina, in Mexico. As he was talking, his voice began to change. “Sweetie,” he remembers saying, “I’m not going to be able to talk much longer. My voice is tightening up.” Not, he reports now, what his wife or the EMTs wanted to hear.
The next hospital, however, seemed to have what he needed. Over the next 24 hours in the ICU, he received three rounds of anti-venin, and his symptoms never got worse than nausea and a swollen arm. When I visited him on the second night, his primary concern was that the ICU staff was not used to patients who eat real food—and he’d been hungry. His other concern—the fate of the snake in his house with his children—had been addressed: the firefighters used a fire extinguisher to freeze it in the suitcase, a technique one had reportedly seen on TV.
In retrospect, he says, what surprised him was the community of people who’d been bitten by poisonous snakes. “I had people from all over getting in touch with me—including several I knew.”
“It could have been so much worse,” he says. “Imagine if it had gotten loose and bitten one of my children or one of our dogs. I was glad it bit me and not someone else.”
Bacas says he’s still not afraid of snakes. But he has a new reason to feel snake-bit: On an anniversary trip to Hawaii in July, he sustained a serious sea urchin sting to his hand. “It’s my other hand,” he says stoically but with a hint of forlornness. “And it’s still swollen.”
(See a related story " Fear of Snakes: Part of Our DNA?".)