NEW TAMPA — A half-hour after a venomous rattlesnake bit his left index finger Friday, Efrain Arango was still delivering mail to homeowners in the Live Oak Preserve subdivision.
"I have to," he drowsily recalled later in the afternoon from a bed inside the University Community Hospital emergency center. "I got to try to do my job."
Arango is 66, the divorced father of two adult daughters.
He works two jobs because, as he puts it, "I need to. Situation is not so easy right now."
His workday starts and ends inside a yellow school bus. He makes $1,400 a month driving Ferrell Middle School students. Eleven months ago, he picked up a part-time contractor job delivering mail. It pays $1,000 a month and helps him erase some of the $25,000 in student loan debt that his youngest daughter accumulated on her way to a criminal justice degree.
On Friday, the extra job sent him to an emergency room.
Arango was completing his rounds in the 20300 block of Merry Oak Avenue, across from Wharton High. An hour into his route, Arango opened a mailbox and saw a package inside. As he tried to remove it, he saw something else — he wasn't sure what — beneath the package.
It was an ugly brown and yellow snake.
"When I moved my hands, he grabbed me," Arango said.
Arango tried to shake the snake off his finger. He banged it against a car.
"I tried to kill him," he said. "He fled away."
Hospital officials said he had been bitten by an eastern diamondback rattlesnake.
It's unclear how a rattlesnake wound up inside the mailbox.
"They get thick-bodied," said Henry Mushinsky, a biology professor at the University of South Florida. "They don't climb. The snakes that are good climbers are long and thin."
Mushinsky said rattlesnakes are usually found in gopher tortoise burrows, which are prevalent in suburban New Tampa. He said that if the snake was in the mailbox, it must have been young and small.
Arango said the snake was between 12 and 14 inches long. Diamondbacks grow to 5 1/2 feet, the largest venomous snakes in North America.
Arango said he was scared, confused, panicky. "Nobody was around to help me out," he said.
He didn't call 911, his relatives or anybody else. With four more deliveries to go, he resumed work as if nothing had happened.
"He's that type of person," supervisor Brenda Falleck said Friday afternoon. "He never misses a day."
His deliveries completed, Arango drove himself to the New Tampa station, 6 miles away on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. With his bloodied finger wrapped in paper towel, he walked inside and made an announcement.
"Brenda, I've been bitten by a snake."
She sat him down and called 911. She asked how much time had passed since the snake bite. She was disappointed that he hadn't immediately called for help but didn't let it show. Arango was in pain.
"My arm's like fire inside," he said. "It was terrible."
Falleck assigned a colleague to watch out for the paramedics. She calmed Arango and asked about his medical history.
She recalled her post office training. She knew that Arango should let his hand dangle lower than his heart. She knew not to put ice on the wound.
"We've had bee stings," she said. "I've even had spider bites before. I've been at the post office for 23 years, and I've never heard of anyone getting snakebitten."
When the paramedics arrived, Arango walked himself outside.
Later, from his hospital room, he said his mouth was dry and that the morphine the doctors had given him made him feel drunk. Hospital spokesman Will Darnall told him that doctors wanted to observe him overnight.
"Sometimes it takes eight hours for the venom to show," Darnall said.
The news disappointed Arango.
"I wanted to go home," he said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rodney Thrash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 269-5303.