“The Deadly Nature of Gila Monster Venom”

This blog’s title is borrowed from one physician’s article related to his being bitten by a baby Gila monster, the United States’ only venomous lizard.

I may not be the only person that has been seriously bitten by a shark,[1] but I’m certain I’m the only one to have been seriously bitten by both a shark and a Gila monster. The latter bite was inflicted when I was a high school student working a summer job at a tourist resort in Park City, Kentucky. This is the home of the fascinating Mammoth Caves, and I was working at the Kentucky Reptile Gardens as an animal caretaker and lecturer, which I still fondly remember. The most fun I had was taking care of a squirrel monkey which loved to jump on my shoulder and into nearby bushes if we were on a walk. He would open a small curled leaf to find some kind of edible critter and hold it up for me to admire before downing it. His olfactory and visual powers were incredible. His dexterity and pride beyond the pale!

One of my charges was an adult Gila monster, which was quite tame. I would frequently pick him up to place in a box with a baby chicken or some chicken eggs, and he would gulp them down with great delight. One day as I picked him up, he decided to test me as a meal, chomping down with a juicy bite of my left ring finger which still exhibits the scars.

The resort owner and I were in a helpless conundrum. Even at the local hospital, nobody had any idea how to deal with the problem.

My big question was, “Am I going to die?”

Having a background dealing with snakes of all types, I recalled an expert at Arizona State whom I had previously corresponded with, Doctor Herbert Stahnke. He had written and lectured on using cryotherapy for Gila monster bite treatment. Cryotherapy is the temporary immersion of the injured extremity in ice water, which lowers the q10 potency of the venom and decreases circulation so that the load of venom would not be immediately released into the more-vulnerable entire body. This was the only concrete knowledge available in Park City on that particular day.

We had nothing better to follow than my recollection, and I had good enough sense to leave my hand in the ice water only for half an hour or so until it became too intolerable, then allowing some warming before replacing it. This lasted for a few hours. To the credit of this therapy, I had very little pain or symptoms elsewhere, even though there was a large swelling involving my entire arm to the shoulder. I still have quite a visual image of that swelling.

The foregoing speaks to “reckless,” but the final result speaks to “lucky,” as a day later I was good enough to leave the hospital without further treatment and back to work in a couple of days. The “lucky” was even more than it seemed because this cryotherapy treatment was widely circulated and later misused in the US. A number of people with non-life-threatening venomous bites lost an entire arm or leg to the far worse consequences of continual extremity freezing. It is no longer used under any circumstance as the to-be-developed antivenom medications became the treatments of choice.

I later became a physician and surgeon dealing frequently with hand injuries. Because of this and my knowledge of herpetology and venomology,[2] I became the go-to physician in the Sacramento area for poisonous snakebites (mostly Crotalus viridins, virdins, the pacific diamondback rattlesnake, the only significantly poisonous snake in northern California). In the course of my practice I was referred a female who had lost an arm, and a male who had lost a leg from panic-inspired twelve-hour straight immersion in ice water.

[1] See my moment on this event
[2] In medical school I wrote “The General Medical Considerations of North American Venomology.”

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