With temperatures hitting their summer peak in the coming weeks, snake sightings become increasingly common. Unfortunately, so do snake bites.
Mary Hite, who lives on Audrey’s Lane off of Spotswood Trail in Louisa, was bitten by a copperhead on June 17 while playing outside with her two-year-old granddaughter, Sophie Birkelund.
The pair were playing with Sophie’s purple rubber ball, with Hite kicking it for her granddaughter to retrieve, when it rolled near a grill by the side of the house. Though the yard had been mowed the night before, Hite’s husband Gary hadn’t done any trimming, so the grass under the grill was still tall.
When Sophie went to get her ball, Hite saw the grass under the grill move.
“I knew it was a snake, but I didn’t know what [kind of snake] it was,” she said.
It wasn’t until she got closer that she realized it was a copperhead – and it was poised to strike.
“It was already curled up and ready to bite [Sophie] on the leg,” Hite recalled.
Taking quick action, Hite placed her hand between the snake and her grandchild and was bitten on the little finger of her right hand. She then took Sophie inside and, after returning outside to trap the snake for the rescue squad to identify, she called 911.
“My hand was aching like crazy and my finger was starting to swell,” she said.
Hite was taken to University of Virginia hospital, where she received four vials of antivenom and was kept overnight. She found out later that her actions were critical to Sophie’s welfare.
“Because she’s so tiny, they couldn’t have given her enough antivenom in time,” Hite said. “At the very least, she could have lost her leg.”
Copperhead venom is not often fatal, and is less poisonous than the venom of Virginia’s other pit vipers, the cottonmouth (water moccasin) and the timber rattlesnake. Even so, anyone who has been bitten by one should seek medical attention. Young children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems have potential for a more severe reaction.
Bites from both venomous and nonvenomous snakes have become increasingly common in the last few years, generally peaking in the month of July. According to the Virginia Department of Health, more than 300 people have gone to emergency rooms or urgent care centers with snake bites this year.
The best way to avoid being bitten by any kind of snake is to simply be cautious. Snakes like areas with tall grass, or cool places they can hide in. Lee Walker, Director for Agency Outreach at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, suggests cleaning up trash piles and wood piles is a good way to prevent snakes from getting on your property.
Another suggestion is to remove anything that might be attracting rodents, as rodents attract snakes.
“It’s part of living with nature,” Walker said. “The best way to avoid them is to remove where they would like to hang around.”
Anyone who has been bitten by a snake, particularly a venomous one, should call 911. While waiting for emergency services, clean the bite with soap and water and keep the bitten area below the heart. Despite what many movies show, attempting to suck the venom out of the wound is not effective, according to the Virginia Herpetological Society.
Hite’s quick action has some people calling her a hero, though it’s not a label she feels she deserves.
“I only did what I had to do,” she said. “It wasn’t a hero thing.”
Her husband, Gary, disagrees.
“If [what she did] isn’t being a hero, I don’t know what is,” he said.