For Jennifer and Jeremy Sutcliffe, it was supposed to be a relaxing day at home. A daughter and granddaughter were coming to visit. A family barbecue was planned for later in the afternoon. But by the end of that day in late May, Jeremy Sutcliffe would be in a coma, his body ravaged by rattlesnake venom and doctors unsure whether the 40-year-old would survive.
It all started with some yard work.
To prepare for the day's festivities, Jennifer told The Washington Post that she and her husband decided to tidy up the yard of their home near Lake Corpus Christi in southern Texas. Jennifer was working in a flower bed when she discovered an invader that was much more sinister than pesky weeds. Hiding among her flowers was a four-foot-long Western diamondback rattlesnake.
"I reached down to pull out a little area of grass that was growing around one of my flowers and I almost grabbed the snake," she said. "The snake was not happy about that at all. It came up with its head, so I screamed."
Alerted by his wife's panic, Jeremy came over with a shovel and decapitated the snake, a move that for many other animals would have meant swift death. But what the Sutcliffes didn't know is that snakes can still bite and inject venom for at least an hour, if not more, after being decapitated. So when Jeremy went to pick up the snake's head about 10 minutes later, he never expected it to bite him in the hand, Jennifer said.
"I heard him screaming that it had bit him," said Jennifer, who was in the house at the time. "I ran out there and he was able to get the snake ripped off his hand." Then, chaos ensued.
Jennifer, who is a nurse, immediately got Jeremy into the car and dialled 911 to figure out which of the local hospitals had antivenin. She learned that the nearest hospital that could save her husband was a little over an hour away. They had only made it about two miles when Jeremy started losing consciousness, suffering from loss of vision and having mini-seizures, Jennifer said.
"When he was going in and out he said, 'If I die I love you,'" she said, adding that Jeremy told the same thing to his daughter while they waited for an ambulance. "I think he was pretty scared."
While Jennifer said she was scared too, she tried to stay positive. "I was telling him that he was going to be okay," she said. "I kept reassuring him that the ambulance was on its way, just trying to keep him awake." He was eventually airlifted to Christus Spohn Shoreline Hospital, Jennifer said.
At the hospital, Jennifer was told her husband was going into septic shock, had internal bleeding and that his blood pressure was consistently "bottoming out." Eventually, Jeremy was put into an induced coma and placed on a ventilator. His organs had started shutting down, his wife said.
"There was actually three different times in the first 24 hours that the doctors told me that they didn't think he was going to make it," Jennifer said. "As a nurse, knowing what they were talking about was scary. I kept talking to him while he was in a coma and I kept telling him to fight it, and he made it through."
Jeremy came out of his coma last Thursday and is now in stable condition, Jennifer said. He had been treated with 26 doses of antivenin. Doctors told her a normal bite is usually treated with two to four doses. But Jeremy has a lengthy recovery ahead of him, his wife said, as he is still showing signs of weakened kidneys.
She said her husband has thought about that Sunday morning and talks about wishing he could go back and do just one thing differently.
"The smart thing would have been for him to scoop it up with a shovel of course instead of trying to reach down and pick it up with his hand," she said, adding that Jeremy had no idea the snake wasn't completely dead. A better option, experts say, is to call animal control to have the snake safely removed.
Although being attacked by a severed snake head seems unusual, Sean Bush, a snake expert at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University told NBC News in 2014 that it's "very common" for snake heads to still bite because it's "a last-ditch effort to survive." In 2014, a Chinese chef was reportedly killed by the head of a spitting cobra as he prepared serve its body for soup, according to the China Daily.
Reptiles are coldblooded and have lower metabolisms than warm-blooded creatures such as humans, which means their internal organs can work for much longer even after decapitation, according to Gizmodo.
"They get real snappy in the throes of death," Bush said.
Jennifer said she hopes what happened to her husband can serve as a cautionary tale and people will know not to assume a snake is dead just because it appears to be.
"It's a common thing for people to grab a shovel and cut off their heads or whatever," she said. "That's what people do a lot just out of fear."
"One split second can change everything for sure," she added.
The Washington Post