When a 33-year-old hiker got bitten by a rattlesnake at Torrey Pines State Park recently, the Light headed to the area in search of answers. What might she have done wrong that we can all learn from on the trail?
In our Aug. 29 article, headlined “Snakes on a Trail,” the Light gave the last word to Torrey Pines park ranger Dave Richards, who said: “I wasn’t on the call, but from what I heard, she may have gone slightly off-trail” and “may have stepped around a barrier” by the closed Broken Hill Trail Loop as she descended the Yucca Trail to Flat Rock Beach.
HIPAA privacy laws prevented the Light from discovering the identity of the victim and getting her side of the story at the time. After our story was published, however, the victim read it and contacted us to set the record straight.
“That’s not what happened,” she said. “We never stepped across any barriers or went into any brush or anything. We were on the trail.”
The victim explained that she was hiking with her husband at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 19. The couple had moved to La Jolla in July after marrying a month before. This was their first time in Torrey Pines State Park.
The Light verified the woman’s identity but she has asked us not to publish it because she has a high-profile career and would rather be Google-able for her accomplishments than her near-fatal mishaps.
“I can see what the rangers are saying,” the victim said. “There was a sign saying how Broken Hill is closed off. So my husband and I were reading the sign. But I just stepped sideways quickly and the snake struck out from the side of the trail under some branches.”
Ironically, a sign meant to warn hikers of danger is what brought danger upon one. (“Because we were reading the sign,” the victim said, “I guess we didn’t see the snake.”)
The bite, to the fourth and fifth toes of her left foot, “didn’t hurt that much,” the victim said — at least at first. She described thinking that “coals from a fire had fallen on my foot” or “a bee had stung me.”
She said she was confused because there was no audible sound and the snake didn’t have its rattle out.
“It might have been asleep and I might have woken it up just in time to think I was going to step on it,” she said. “But my husband, who has lived in San Diego for a while, recognized what happened.”
Calling for help
The couple tried dialing 911 but couldn’t get cell service. Since her phone was already out, the victim snapped a photo of the snake, thinking that doctors might need to know what breed of rattlesnake it was. (Later, she was told that it was a Southern Pacific rattlesnake, the very breed that herpetologist Steve Bledsoe, who accompanied the Light on its fact-finding mission, called “crazy” due to its highly toxic venom and its quickness to bite.)
“I now think that was a little risky of me because I had to lean towards it to take the photo,” she said. (Surprisingly, the victim said, the snake stayed where it was for the whole 45-minute ordeal; later, she heard that it was removed from the area.)
The next group of hikers to approach, about two minutes later, dialed 911. That’s when the first effects of the venom kicked in.
“I started dry-heaving and then I had this crazy sensation going through my body,” the victim said. “People were freaking out.” (A crowd began to gather once other hikers realized what happened.)
A group of lifeguards — the closest emergency personnel — arrived first, within 15 minutes. They ran up the nearby stairs from the beach. They tied a tourniquet around the victim’s left ankle to slow the venom’s spread to the rest of her body.
“I was having this really intense paralyzing feeling in my face, neck and arms and I started to have chest pains,” she recalled.
EMTs from San Diego Fire-Rescue arrived 15 minutes after that, followed 15 minutes later by a helicopter on the beach with two additional EMTs. The victim described herself as “conscious but terrified” during her airlift.
“I really didn’t know anything about snakebites,” she said. “I grew up in New England. Especially with the crazy chest pains I was having and the fact that they were helicoptering me out — which I now realize is about the damage to my foot — I was just really scared.
“And they didn’t have room for my husband.”
The anti-venom was administered about an hour after the victim arrived at Scripps Memorial.
“It takes a while to mix the solution,” she said. “I actually needed a lot. Even though there wasn’t a huge amount of tissue damage, the anti-venom (CroFab) is derived from the most common type of snake to bite people (North American) and it doesn’t work very well on the hemotoxin given off by the Southern Pacific Rattlesnake.
“Obviously,” the victim said, “I know a lot about snakebites now.”
To slow the expansion of any damaged flesh, three CroFab doses were required.
The victim was lucky. Her attacker didn’t deliver as much hemotoxin as it could have.
“We heard stories in the hospital about how lots of snakebites cause people to lose their limbs,” she said. “You run to the hospital and they’re like, ‘Sorry, your leg is gone.’”
But hemotoxin, which a snake uses to pre-digest its prey, is not the only scary component of a snake’s venom. There’s also neurotoxin, for paralyzing prey. There is no antidote for neurotoxin. However, it usually wears off after about four hours — if it doesn’t stop your breathing first.
“Eventually, the paralysis reached my face and I couldn’t open my eyes,” the victim said. “An hour after that, it was a feeling of weird muscle tension throughout my neck and face.”
Doctors put her to sleep while closely monitoring her progress.
“When I woke up, everything was back to normal,” the victim said, “except that my foot was in pain and still is sometimes.”
She spent three nights in the intensive care unit but was told she will suffer no long-term effects.
The total cost of that sideways step while reading the sign? Just north of $250,000. Fortunately, the victim’s insurance promises to cover all but $1,500.
“The whole episode was very surprising to me,” the victim said, “particularly because everyone said this never happens and this was our very first time in Torrey Pines State Park.”
She said she reached out to the Light because this “could have happened to anyone,” and she wants people to know they should always wear pants and closed-toed shoes while hiking.
“Especially children,” she said. “Everyone around us was wearing sandals and shorts, like us.”