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Snakebite puts boy in hospital for days

It was time to go home. The Goodson children had spent much of Sunday afternoon playing at Rogers Park in Hernando County when their mother called them to the car.

Terrel Goodson, 11, was running across the playground when he felt a sharp poke on top of his bare right foot.

"He thought it was a stick scraping him," said his mother, Lois Goodson, 36, who lives east of Brooksville.

But it was something far less innocuous. A cottonmouth, often called a water moccasin, had sunk its fangs into the boy, leaving him in critical condition for days before the poison subsided.

Thursday, Terrel was up and about at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, playing Sega in the children's game room and looking forward to going home that evening.

He is one of the roughly 8,000 people bitten by venomous snakes each year in the United States. On average, fewer than 15 die and most of those were deliberately handling snakes. Ten times that many people die from lightning strikes.

Terrel said he does not remember much of the events that brought him to the hospital, but it is a drama his mother could not forget.

Immediately after the snake bit her son, his foot started swelling and he was screaming in pain. Goodson had the presence of mind to go back for the snake. She enlisted the help of a man who used an oar to kill it, then Goodson took it with her.

She gathered up her children, got in her car and used her cellular phone to call 911 as she drove toward the nearest hospital. She stopped at a convenience store along the way, where a clerk, by a stroke of luck, had a snake bite kit.

"She punctured his foot and drew some of the poison out," Goodson said.

By that time, the rescue truck found the family and took over treating Terrel. Goodson said his foot had swollen to the size of a cantaloupe.

"I like to have passed out a couple of times," Goodson said. "I didn't know what to do."

Cottonmouths, found throughout Florida, can become belligerent when annoyed, although many experts consider them one of the more sedate poisonous snakes, according to the Complete Guide to Snakes of Florida. When disturbed, the 3-foot to 4-foot snakes draw their heads back and disclose the white parts of their mouths, hence the name cottonmouth. A slow mover on land, cottonmouths often remain coiled in one place instead of retreating like other snakes. They sometimes strike at a victim several times.

Their venom is not as toxic as most rattlesnakes' but contains an extra agent that can leave the victim crippled and disfigured, said Dan Kohler, a Spring Hill herpetologist who has handled and studied snakes for 55 years.

"Most snakes don't want anything to do with people," he said. "But even a squirrel will bite you if you step on it."

Residents around the Tampa Bay area are much more likely to come across a pygmy rattlesnake than a cottonmouth, if they see a venomous snake at all, Kohler said.

Last year, Brooksville resident Bobby Martin Jr. spent three weeks in the hospital after he chased a coral snake that in turn bit him on the hand. The 7-year-old made a full recovery.

"Deciding which poisonous snake is better to get bitten by is like deciding whether to get run over by an international or American-made truck," said Kohler, who has been bitten twice by rattlesnakes. "Either way, it hurts like hell and takes a lot of treatment to recover."

Emergency workers took Terrel to Oak Hill Hospital in Spring Hill. Goodson said the decision to transfer Terrel to All Children's was made late Sunday. He arrived shortly before midnight, said hospital spokeswoman Ann Miller.

For several days, he was in critical condition in the hospital's intensive care unit. There were times, said Goodson, that she wasn't sure Terrel would survive the bite.

"He was conscious off and on," Goodson said. "He was so weak. It was real scary."

Wednesday night, the swelling began to subside and the boy's outlook brightened, Goodson said.

Terrel, who will be in the fifth grade this year at Eastside Elementary, was reticent about the ordeal, except when asked how he felt about going home.

"I'm tired of staying here," he said.