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Bitten by a king cobra, he lived to tell about it

With bloody fang marks on his hand and venom from a king cobra inside his body, George VanHorn rushed to the laboratory and grabbed two vials of epinephrine.

He jumped in a car outside, and while his horrified assistant started the mad drive to the hospital, VanHorn injected himself in the forearm and thigh.

"It was like, you know, what can I do to turn this around?" VanHorn said Sunday from his hospital bed in Orlando.

"I was telling myself to live. I was saying, "Live! Live!' . . . Because I really didn't think I was going to."

Then he blacked out, slumped forward in his seat and began to turn blue.

His assistant, Bonnie Watkins, grabbed his head by the hair and held it back against the seat while driving nearly 80 mph and running red lights on the way to the hospital.

"I didn't think he was going to live through it," Watkins said. "I said, "I think this one is it.' "

VanHorn, 51, who owns a snake breeding and venom production facility in Osceola County, had been bitten by other snakes. But this was by far the worst.

He was attacked Wednesday while preparing to extract venom from a 12-foot cobra nicknamed Show Material during a demonstration for children visiting from a day-care center.

He was unconscious for two-and-a-half days. But by Sunday, he was out of intensive care and able to talk.

"I'm really amazed," he said, still sounding weak in a telephone interview. "I really didn't think it was possible to survive that."

A doctor who cared for VanHorn said the snake handler was saved by getting to the hospital fast and by antivenin and advice from experts as far away as New Mexico.

"It's very impressive," said Dr. Mehrdad Ganjianpour, a surgical resident at the Orlando Regional Medical Center.

"To have a snake that big and with such a large dose of venom. . . . Everybody chipped in quite a bit to save his life, including himself."

VanHorn owns the Reptile World Serpentarium in St. Cloud, which has five employees, a gift shop and more than 1,000 snakes.

His assistant released the 6-year-old cobra from a cage during a "venom show" Wednesday morning. VanHorn was preparing to control the snake with a 3-foot-long hook when it launched its long, greenish-gold body from a waist-high table about six feet away and struck VanHorn on the back of his left hand.

VanHorn said the motive was hunger.

"It was a feeding response, for sure," he said. "He was just really hungry, and he saw my hand move. He thought, "rat,' and he moved really fast."

Then it was VanHorn's turn to move fast.

Cobra bites by themselves can be fatal, but VanHorn also is allergic to snake venom after years of exposure and about 10 bites.

He flung the snake, which was latched to his hand, onto the floor, then he hopped over it and rushed to a nearby lab. He retrieved epinephrine to combat the allergic reaction while Watkins, who had locked the snake in the other room, hurried to the lab and removed nine vials of antivenin from a refrigerator.

By the time the two got to the car, VanHorn was having trouble breathing.

It was "a big itchy feeling," he said, "like you're an inflating balloon and you can't get any air."

He was taken first to St. Cloud Hospital, then flown in the late afternoon to the hospital in Orlando.

Doctors administered antivenin intravenously. Extra doses, made specifically for cobra bites, were rushed from a snake center in Punta Gorda by sheriff's deputies and state troopers who met at county lines and handed off the medicine. Vials also were relayed from a zoo in Birmingham, Ala.

Snake experts in Gainesville and in New Mexico gave advice by phone on treatment, Dr. Ganjianpour said.

VanHorn regained consciousness by Friday night.

His left hand remains badly swollen and will require surgery. But he hopes to regain full use of it, and he could leave the hospital as early as today.

He can expect a get-well card from 30 worried youngsters at the Good Beginnings day-care center in Melbourne.

Watching the attack was very frightening, said Mike Szewczyk, who had brought kids ages 6 to 12 to the serpentarium.

After the two snake handlers ran out of the room, which is separated by glass from the audience, the kids "were asking me, "Is he going to be okay? Is he going to die?' " Szewczyk said. "Actually, I didn't know how serious it was myself."

Show Material, also known as Super Cobra, will be the first one VanHorn visits when he returns to work.

Some snakes seem to become more aggressive after biting people, he said, and he will watch closely for that. But he won't punish the snake or get rid of it.

"Oh, no, he'll be fine," he said. "He'll continue on the (venom-producing) line, and there will be no changes for him."

There will be for VanHorn.

Next time he handles the snake, he said, "I'll be triple ready."

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