Terri Kalem was working in her garden at her Shingle Springs home on the cool morning of June 5, clearing away weeds as tall as a foot and a half. She had taken her left glove off to wipe her brow before getting back to work with her loppers. As she was crouching down to grab the base of weeds, she nicked her middle finger on her left hand on the vegetation. Or so she thought until she saw the snake coiled in the weeds.
“No one was ever more shocked,” Kalem, 59, said. “It was perfectly coiled. I was just shocked. I was 60 percent sure it was a rattlesnake.” It was about as thick as her thumb and coiled about four times, but she could not see a head or tail.
She came to the conclusion, having dealt with a friend who is a rattlesnake hunter, that it was indeed a rattlesnake, and that it wasn’t a baby. “It was just sunning itself, just protecting itself.”
She had her two cats out with her, but she “dropped what I was doing and flew to the house,” later thinking that her pets could have been bitten, too.
She called her son Joey first, telling him what happened, so that he could come pick her up. Kalem then called Marshall Hospital, and told them she would be there within 10 minutes and that she would not wait for an ambulance. The dispatcher, however, told her “that’s not how it’s done,” she said. She debated with the dispatcher before she finally relented. She was told to hang up the phone and that 911 would call her. “I was told to sit down. My adrenaline was at 1,000 percent. I was hysterical. It would have made America’s Funniest Home Videos,” she said.
Within seven minutes, the finger that had been bitten had doubled in size. At 20 minutes, when the ambulance arrived, her fingers and palms were swelling. The paramedics marked the top of her palm to measure any more swelling, and told her to stay still. Meanwhile, “I was yelling ‘Joey, get my camera.’ I wasn’t allowed any cameras, though.” Instead, she got an IV.
“I was making jokes,” she said about the ambulance ride. “My hand and arm were feeling ok. But it was the longest trip to the hospital. I could see out the back window, and I realized all the cars were pulling over for me.”
When she arrived at the hospital and stood up a wave of nausea hit her. A handful of nurses met her and provided “really, really good care,” including oxygen. “There was a tingling in my lips, it was unmistakable. It was in my nose. My eyes were playing tricks,” she said. She thought her throat was swelling, and that was causing a lack of oxygen, though she later found out that was not the case; the symptoms were just from the poison, not a lack of oxygen.
Kalem was hit with more waves of nausea. “It was coming and going,” she said. She was preoccupied by her senses, but the nurses placated her. “‘It’s OK, you are in good hands,’ they said. The pain level was not there.” Her rattlesnake-hunting friend had recounted that others felt excruciating pain, but she did not. “I’ve had worse pain through pricks from roses.”
Because all the normal doctors were preoccupied, she was seen by a surgeon and taken to the Intensive Care Unit. She was warned she could die, but she declined to hear what else could occur. “I didn’t want to know what could happen to my blood.” She later found out that the poison affects the blood’s clotting factor and thins the blood, and rattlesnake bite victims are not discharged until the clotting factor is back to an acceptable level.
Altogether, Kalem had to be given the 16 vials of anti-venom, the maximum allowed. Each vial would cost her insurance company $2,000. The poison had only reached up to her shoulder, but in the days following treatment, her arm “felt paralyzed. It felt like my fingers were being bent back, that kind of pain.” Her muscles were also sore from the poison. She would also wake up with her middle finger swollen, but it would be fine by mid-morning. “In the end, it feels like there’s a tourniquet on it.”
She was told at a follow-up that she should try not to get bitten again, as victims who are bitten a second time by rattlesnakes often have an allergic reaction to additional anti-venom treatments. She was also warned that the side effects of the treatment would likely not present themselves for five or six weeks.
“I’m so thankful,” Kalem said. “I sometimes step back and wonder if it really happened.” It could have ended differently, though. “If I was bit in another place …” she trailed off. “They can strike up to 10 1/2 times their length, and my head was really close to it.”
Unfortunately, she said, she was unable to get her revenge on the snake that bit her. She had a rattlesnake hunter go through her yard and clear out any areas a snake was likely to hide in, but no snakes were found. “I wanted to eat that snake,” she laughed.