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Rattler's deadly bite sank into psyche of famous snake handler

HOMESTEAD

Joe Wasilewski has handled thousands of snakes during the last half century. He has suffered more than a dozen venomous bites, including a few that led to the emergency room. "If you're an electrician,'' he tells people, "you expect a shock every once in a while. If you handle enough reptiles, you're going to be bitten.''

So he's careful. He's also — and he'll be the first to tell you this — sometimes an impatient guy. In late November, he'd been away from home for a while — Seattle and Jamaica. He had phone calls to make and people to meet. He had cages to clean. He was jet-lagged. He was in a hurry.

He flipped on the light in his snake room. The rattlesnakes' unhappy cacophony filled the air.

He opened a cage and used a short pole to lift the buzzing 4-foot diamondback at its fattest point. In a well-practiced move, he slid the snake into a garbage can for safekeeping while he cleaned the cage.

Then it was time to reverse the process. Hook the snake in the middle, position head away from you, slide it back into the cage.

He felt a sharp sting in his left forearm.

"Oh, oh,'' he told his son, Nick. "I think he got me.''

While his son called 911, Wasilewski got a funny metallic taste in his mouth. His lips tingled, he sweated profusely, he threw up.

He usually knows, after a few minutes, whether he'll be okay. Those bites Wasilewski rides out at home. This one was different. Sitting in his front yard, as the pain traveled up his arm to his chest, he waited to hear the ambulance siren.

 

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Wasilewski, 61, started catching snakes as a boy along the railroad tracks in Chicago. He hunted nothing venomous, mostly garter snakes. His parents banned them from the house, but that was okay. It was all about communion with something wild, and the excitement of doing something dangerous.

After high school, he joined the Army and had his choice of assignments. "I'll take Miami,'' he told the recruiter. It wasn't about the beach, but the abundance of snakes waiting for him in the Everglades.

In spare time he worked at the Serpentarium, run by the legendary Bill Haast. Haast thrilled tourists by publicly milking venom from dangerous snakes on the lawn, but later sold the venom to medical facilities. Wasilewski felt he was the world's luckiest man, even after a Chinese spitting cobra scored a direct hit in his eye. He looked like he'd gone a few rounds with Muhammad Ali.

Pain was a small price for doing what he loved.

 

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Rattlers regulate the volume of their venom. A mouse needs only a little dose and a rat a little more. A rabbit may receive a little more venom than a rat. Rattlers sometimes bite humans without injecting venom. A snake that feels in danger may deliver everything it has. That's the dose that Wasilewski got.

He arrived in the emergency room at Homestead Hospital in bad shape. His blood pressure headed dangerously south, he fought for breath. It felt like his throat wanted to close. His arm had started to swell.

Someone started an IV. Someone administered morphine. The guy who loved snakes writhed on the table.

About 6,000 people are bitten in North America each year. In about 80 percent of those cases, experts say, the victim was trying to handle the snake. A half century ago, fatalities were common. Not so today. Medical treatment is usually nearby, and antivenin is effective. Only one in about 700 bites results in death.

The greatest danger? Shock caused by dangerously low blood pressure that can deprive the brain and other organs of oxygen. Some snakebite victims bleed internally. Even with treatment, a survivor might lose flesh, muscle tissue, nerves, bone, even a limb.

As emergency room doctors worked to stabilize Wasilewski, another telephoned Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein, the medical director of the Florida Poison Information Center in Miami and an expert on the treatment of snakebite.

Bernstein suggested Wasilewski's doctors begin treatment with antivenin. Someone told him the victim's name.

"Oh my,'' Bernstein said. "I know him.''

 

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In South Florida, Wasilewski is a minor celebrity. Need someone to go on camera to talk about native American crocodiles? Call Wasilewski. For more than a decade, he studied them for the state at the Turkey Point Nuclear Plant. He caught them, measured them and inserted computer chips into hatchlings. An 11-footer caught recently near Tampa Bay was a croc Wasilewski had marked when it was tiny.

His biology degree from Florida International University, and his affection for reptiles, earned him a gig as the official iguana wrangler in two Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

A few years ago he was hired to do a snake show at the Parrot Jungle tourist attraction. He'd brought a rattler. He wasn't worried. He'd handled hundreds of them.

It wasn't the first time he'd underrated a snake. In the emergency room, he met Dr. Bernstein. "I feel funny,'' Wasilewski told his alarmed doctor, but antivenin saved him. He was home the next day with only a little nerve damage in his thigh.

 

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At Homestead Hospital, Wasilewski was unconscious. His blood wasn't clotting. He'd received eight vials of antivenin. Then he got another eight.

His arm was grotesque and swollen. Standing next to his dad's bed in intensive care, Nick stared in shock at the stricken arm. The twitching muscles made it look like worms wriggling under the skin.

Antivenin costs about $3,200 a vial. Why so expensive? First, lots of venomous snakes have to be captured. Their venom is extracted and injected into horses and sheep, whose blood forms antibodies against the poison. Finally, the animal blood is made into a product to treat humans.

Wasilewski improved. Opened his eyes. Talked. Then suffered a relapse. His blood had stopped clotting again. The swollen arm was turning black. Over the next three days his doctor ordered another 32 vials.

He endured tubes up his nose, down his throat, in his penis, in his arm. Morphine. Fog. Day, night, another day. Improvement. Awake. Tubes came out. Ate some food.

For the first time in more than a week he felt alive.

 

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He was home on Thanksgiving. He felt weak, old, no longer an immortal. In the living room Wasilewski lay on the sofa and watched television until he fell asleep. He dreamed he was in the hospital dying from snakebite.

Friends called or dropped by. "I can't take another bite like that,'' he told them. As days passed his mental state improved. He thought about stopping at the Knaus Berry Farm for a cinnamon bun, but changed his mind. With a new lease on life he'd try to eat healthy.

He picked up his 13-year-old granddaughter, Claire, at middle school. He watched Joey, his 5-year-old grandson, ride the Galapagos tortoise in the back yard.

In December, at sunset, he crossed the back lawn to the locked snake room. Snapped on the light. Instant rattling.

He looked at his two Eastern diamondbacks. When he feels confident about handling them, he'll proceed with his plan.

One snake he'll keep for educational purposes. The other he'll give to a pal in Central Florida in the venom business.

His friend needs a potent rattler.

Wasilewski has just the snake for him.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@tampabay.rr.com.

The Florida Poison Information Center hotline, toll-free 1-800-222-1222, is answered 24 hours a day.

ANTIVENIN AND YOU: bit.ly/tbt-antivenin

Rattler's deadly bite sank into psyche of famous snake handler 12/31/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 29, 2014 5:57pm]

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