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Boy bitten by snake makes slow recovery

A day after Bobby Martin Jr. lay motionless in a hospital bed, paralyzed from a coral snake bite, the 7-year-old began to show signs of recovery.

He lifted his eyebrow. He moved his eyes. He wiggled his fingers and his toes.

"You know it's got to scare him to death to lay there and hear what's going on and not be able to move," said Bobby's father, Bobby Martin Sr. of Brooksville.

Bobby can't speak. He can't move his 50-pound body, nor can he breathe unassisted, requiring a respirator. He was in guarded condition Tuesday at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.

But doctors say he is expected to make a full recovery, though it could be days before he can do something as simple as clear his throat.

In fact, poison control officials say that of the 15 to 25 coral snake bites annually in Florida, none in recent years have been fatal.

The reason, they say, is an antivenin injected into patients such as Bobby. It stops the poison from blocking messages fired from the brain.

As Bobby battled the poison, his grandparents flew in from Kansas, and his parents and schoolmates maintained a vigil.

"He can barely open his eyes," the second-grader's father said.

It has been a close call.

"Does your whole body hurt?'

The ordeal began Sunday morning when Bobby picked up a black-nosed coral snake near his home in Hernando County. The snake pierced the webbed flesh between Bobby's middle and ring fingers and chewed, injecting Bobby with poison.

Unable to stop vomiting, he was taken to Brooksville Regional Hospital, then to All Children's Hospital, where doctors pumped him intravenously with eight to 10 vials of the antivenin.

At one point, he stopped breathing.

Bobby's parents were at his bedside at 8 a.m. Tuesday.

"Does your tummy hurt?" they asked. "Does your hand hurt?" "Does your whole body hurt?"

He lifted his eyebrows twice for yes.

"I'm not scared," his mother, Tina Martin, told him. "Are you scared?"

"He said "yes' by lifting his eyebrows," Bobby's father said.

"Observe, don't touch'

Considered timid Florida reptiles, coral snakes live in hardwood hammocks and do not bite unless they are picked up, according to Dr. Sven Normann, director of the Florida Poison Information Center in Tampa.

"We tell people enjoy, observe, don't touch, but again, a lot of children like to grab, and that's the problem right there," said Brian Mealey, a wildlife biologist at the Miami Museum of Science.

Coral snakes have red, yellow and black bands that circle their slender bodies. There's even a rhyme to help people recognize them: "If red touches yellow, kill a fellow. Red touches black, friend of Jack."

Riggs, the doctor treating Bobby, said that when a coral snake bites its victim, "it makes it so that the victim can't move or eat."

As in Bobby's case, the poison attacked his central nervous system, interfering with nerve and muscle transmission.

"There's a chemical that jumps from the nerve and tells muscles and nerves what to do," Riggs said. "It blocks that chemical from being able to do its job."

He said Bobby, like most bite victims, will recover slowly. He may feel numb where he was bitten and may need physical therapy.

"There have been cases of people that had to be on breathing machines from weeks to months," said Dr. Dan Riggs, Bobby's pediatrician at All Children's Hospital.

However, said Riggs, "I'm not aware of long term problems that persist."

Classmates concerned

At Moton Elementary in Hernando County, where Bobby is a second-grader, students kept teachers busy with questions about their classmate's condition.

They asked what a respirator is and why Bobby is having trouble breathing.

The principal used his morning announcements, which are piped around the school on televisions, to discuss snake safety. But throughout the day, teachers had to stop their lessons to discuss the topic on many children's minds.

"We tried to share as much as we can without scaring them," said Lynne Churchill, Bobby's teacher. "It sorta turned into an impromptu science lesson."

She described Bobby as a popular, good-natured kid who's typically in the thick of the pack of boys who chase frogs at recess. His class has been together since kindergarten, and Bobby's absence was a subject of great concern.

His classmates spent part of Tuesday making get-well cards that his teacher plans to send to the hospital.

The subject of snakes _ and the need to leave them alone _ had come up before during science class and at times when snakes have been spotted around the school grounds, she said. But it's being reviewed since Bobby's snake encounter.

"I think they've all learned about wildlife and that we need to respect," said Churchill, "and to stay away from it."

_ Times staff writer Robert King contributed to this story.

The coral snake

The snout of the coral snake is black, and a wide band of yellow crosses the head. The body pattern has broad rings of red and blue-black separated by narrow rings of yellow that circle the body. Coral snakes average about 20 inches long. They spend most of their time underground in cracks and crevices. If bitten by this snake, seek medical attention immediately.