A venomous strike creates a teachable moment.
It’s not every day a Rhode Island doctor treats a copperhead bite. In fact, until last July, it wasn’t any day. New England is home to only two venomous snake species, the timber rattlesnake and the Northern copperhead, neither of which had been recorded in the Ocean State in decades.
So when an East Providence man showed up at Rhode Island Hospital with a severely swollen left hand and telltale puncture wounds, emergency physicians got a crash course in venomous snakebite management. First the doctors had to determine whether the limited vials of antivenin in the hospital pharmacy were even viable, “because no one had used it in such a long time,” says Tony Zhang, MD RES’17, corresponding author of a case report in the January issue of the Rhode Island Medical Journal. They then had to learn how to administer it—very carefully, as shaking the antidote renders it ineffective—while other providers called zoos and Boston hospitals to scrounge more vials, in case the patient didn’t respond to the initial dose.
After four days the man went home, healthier and surely wiser should he ever again meet an unfamiliar serpent. Zhang and his colleagues, who are better acquainted with the bites of ticks and dogs, were glad to gain some wisdom, too. “One of the most exciting parts of our job is being on the front line of these cases,” Zhang says. “We need to be able to identify and treat a lot of these rare events.”