That Bites! A Tale of Wilderness Survival
by Douglas Falkner, MD, MHom
With my many years of experience as an emergency medicine physician in a Level I trauma center, I have great respect for the life-saving capabilities of conventional Western medicine. Emergency physicians deftly manage life-threatening problems on a daily basis.
Now that I am a homeopath in private practice, I am happy to help people with all manner of serious acute and chronic conditions heal safely and gently; the power of homeopathy never ceases to amaze me! Yet I rarely have the occasion to treat individuals in life-or-death situations anymore, because when accident, injury, or illness brings someone to the brink of death they go (or are transported) to the hospital.
Last August, however, Providence delivered an unusual opportunity to test my mettle and that of homeopathic medicine when I took a trip with my family to the remote Steen’s Mountain area in Oregon. This high desert region, far from the hustle and bustle of urban life, is filled with majestic beauty, abundant wildlife, and tranquility. But it is also populated with a number of desert predators.
A deadly encounter
One afternoon as we returned from a refreshing swim in the river near our campsite, a neighboring camper, Don, called out to us: “Watch out for snakes! My dog just got bitten by one!” Thirty minutes earlier, his Border Collie/Lab mix, affectionately named Bob, had gone charging after an “intruder” on their turf, broken his tether in pursuit, and wound up with a snakebite on the right side of his head. Don quickly responded and killed the attacker with his shovel, allowing clear identification: definitely a rattlesnake.
Don didn’t know I was a physician and homeopath, but I came right over with my emergency remedy kit and explained this to him. I emphasized my sincere belief that homeopathy could very well offer effective service. I didn’t let Don know that I had never had the opportunity to treat a snakebite with homeopathy before, but I was excited to try it!
Don had little familiarity with homeopathy, but he did have experience with snakebites and dogs. He had worked in the desert as a field archeologist for more than 30 years, and one of his other dogs had nearly died from a rattler’s bite. “It was touch and go for days,” Don recalled, but fortunately that dog recovered. Of course, among dog owners, there are many stories of poisonous snakebites with less happy endings. A dose of snake venom in a small animal is even more dangerous than it is in a human; it’s estimated that dogs are 20 times more likely to be bitten (because they tend to instinctively pursue the snake) and 25 times more likely to die from a poisonous snakebite. Rattlesnake venom disrupts vein integrity and the ability of the blood to clot. This can lead to significant swelling as circulation is impaired and blood bleeds into the tissues.
Bob was clearly not doing well. He was lying at Don’s side, very quiet and subdued, the right side of his face swollen dramatically, his right eye completely shut, his swollen jowl sagging with the force of gravity, heavy drool hanging from the side of his mouth. When I stroked Bob’s head in reassurance he yelped in pain, the bitten area being exquisitely tender. Don, having seen this all before, was extremely concerned and resigned to begin his several-day vigil at Bob’s side. In this remote setting at day’s end, it would have taken many hours to reach an emergency veterinary facility, let alone one that was open and equipped with antivenom to handle snakebites. And because Don knew that time is of the essence in the conventional treatment of venomous snakebites, he figured the best he could do for his beloved companion was to watch over him and try to keep him quiet and as comfortable as possible.
I, too, knew the situation was very serious. In a human patient with similar symptoms after a rattlesnake bite, the prognosis would have been guarded at best. This bite location—in the general area of his neck and jaw–could have proved disastrous, threatening both airway and circulation. Intravenous injections of antivenom would have been immediately indicated, and we had none out here in the woods.
High desert homeopathy
In the best of circumstances, a homeopath has a library of resources to find the optimal remedy for the problem at hand. I had no books or software with me on the trip. Further, homeopaths thrive on hearing the patient’s account of their symptoms, and here I was dealing with a non-verbal canine friend. Nevertheless, I was used to handling dire emergencies. Any feelings of doubt or worry were simply brushed aside as I focused intently on the matter at hand, as emergency docs are trained to do. In addition, I knew from my homeopathic experience that, if I selected the correct remedy for Bob, all would likely turn out well.
With my patient quietly and plaintively awaiting my assistance, I perused my set of remedies and selected two that I thought would be most likely to help in this situation, namely Lachesis (made from the venom of the South American Surucucu snake, a pit viper) and Cedron (made from a plant, also known as “Rattle Snake Bean,” with a reputation for antidoting snakebites), both in a 30c potency, which was all I had.
Ideally, classical homeopaths give one remedy at a time, in order to evaluate treatment progress without introducing extra variables. Given the seriousness of the situation, however, I decided to hedge my bets and alternate the two most reasonable remedy choices available, hoping that one would be a good match for Bob’s symptoms. Since homeopathy works on the principle of “like cures like,” it made sense that one remedy made from snake venom and another from a plant long used in herbal folk medicine to treat snakebite might very well resolve the after-effects of Bob’s unfortunate encounter with a rattler. By alternating the two remedies and observing carefully, perhaps one would prove its mettle more clearly, and I could then eliminate the other from the mix.
I dissolved a few granules of Cedron 30c in a cup of water and dissolved a few granules of Lachesis 30c in another cup, carefully labeling each to avoid later confusion. I instructed Don to alternate the two remedies by giving Bob a spoonful from one or the other cup every five minutes for a total of four doses (two of each remedy). Then I left to get a bite (no pun intended) to eat.
When I returned about 30 minutes later, Bob was already showing good signs of improvement. He was starting to wag his tail and look up. His right eye, previously swollen shut, was beginning to open. That was a quick response to treatment! Now that Bob was getting better, I instructed Don to lengthen the time between doses–alternating spoonfuls of the remedies every 15 minutes.
When I returned for the second time about an hour later, Bob stood up to greet me. Face still swollen and mouth drooling, he was nevertheless becoming more animated. He was acting more dog-like and less ill. His eye was now half visible. When I petted him, he didn’t yelp like before. The pain seemed significantly diminished, and his energy was returning.
Night was already falling, so I told Don to keep up with the alternating doses through the late evening every half hour, and then to give one or two doses of each remedy during the night. As I turned toward our campsite, I saw Bob energetically jump up into Don’s camper and lay himself on his doggie bed. At that point, I knew that he was out of the woods and recovering beautifully.
I awoke early the next morning, eager to see how Bob had weathered the night. He came running over to greet me, tail wagging, both eyes wide open, showing no signs whatsoever of being sick. There was still some swelling under his jowls, but it didn’t seem to bother him. Bob’s immune system was processing the effects of the snake venom, and it seemed that the toxicity had been effectively neutralized. In fact, he had eaten breakfast, drunk copious amounts of water, and “done his duty” per his normal schedule. He was clearly well and thriving!
Don, on the other hand, was both elated and perplexed. When we’d first met after Bob’s unfortunate encounter with the snake, Don was nearly grief-stricken as he explained that this dog was his “family,” for he had no wife or children. Now, all that worry was behind him. He knew the homeopathic remedies had acted to save his beloved companion, but he wasn’t quite sure how to explain it to himself. “I’ve never seen a dog make such a fast turnaround after a rattlesnake bite… Never!” he said, shaking his head. “How in the world could the swelling go down that fast? I would have expected it to take days, if at all. It’s incredible!” After explaining a bit more about how homeopathy worked, I joked with him that it was just a little homeopathic magic.
I instructed Don to wean Bob off the remedies by decreasing the dosing frequency to three times a day the current day, then to twice daily the next day, and then once daily on the following two days. Should there be any signs of worsening, he was to dose more frequently until symptoms again stabilized, then wean again, slowly.
A lesson to take home
Seeing how well homeopathy had worked–as I knew it should–in this life-threatening emergency was both gratifying and awe-inspiring. Not only did the remedies perform as well as or better than the standard of care in western medicine (namely, antivenom), they did so without any of the attendant risks, such as anaphylaxis and death, not to mention the considerable expense of such treatments.
Homeopathic remedies have no material substance and so are said to act energetically rather than physically. By stimulating and empowering the life force, homeopathic remedies accelerate the body’s innate wisdom and capacity to heal. This experience with Bob served as a real testimony to the validity of homeopathy and its underlying principles.
From many years of clinical application, I know that I can rely on the medicinal powers of homeopathic remedies, when properly applied, to serve our patients across the entire spectrum of dis-ease, from minor to life-threatening. I am thankful to Don who offered this opportunity to reinforce and deepen this knowing, and to Bob for being such a cooperative and willing patient.
All About Antivenon
In the 1890s, a protégé of Louis Pasteur named Albert Calmette created the first antivenom based on the principle of vaccines. After milking the venom from cobras, Calmette injected this into horses–not enough to cause serious injury to the horses but enough for their immune systems to react and create antibodies. After waiting a few weeks, he drew some blood from the horses, extracted the serum from the blood, and injected this antibody-filled serum into people suffering from the poisonous effects of a cobra bite. In most cases, the “antivenom” would neutralize the venom from the snakebite, and the person would regain their health.
Although scientists have greatly refined the method of making antivenom since then, the production steps are still largely the same. It is a slow, laborious process that requires milking many dangerous snakes to create a small amount of antivenom. The resulting product is costly (as much as $1500 per vial), and one snakebite victim might require as many as 30 vials! Furthermore, different antivenoms are required to address the bites of different species of snakes (although there is one antivenom product that works against all North American poisonous snakebites, except that of coral snakes).
Antivenom is the standard of care in snakebite treatment in the U.S., and as a result, fewer than 5 or 6 people a year die from snakebites. A different picture exists in other regions of the world, however. Tens of thousands of people die from snakebites in developing countries where antivenom is hard to come by, as a result of high costs or lack of access to required refrigeration. With the greatest demand for antivenom coming from countries that can’t afford to buy it, many drug companies have stopped making antivenom in recent years, as they have little financial incentive. This has created antivenom shortages worldwide.
So if your summer plans call for visiting an area where you may encounter a poisonous snake, all the more reason to keep your wits about you–and your homeopathic remedy kit handy!
–Reference: Main, Douglas. “How to Make Antivenom and Why the World is Running Short.” Popular Mechanics, July 2011.
Snakebite Survival Guide
First-aid & homeopathy basics
What should you do if a poisonous snake sinks its fangs into you or a loved one? Popular culture is rife with notions about lancing and sucking venom from the wound or applying tourniquets to ”contain” the venom. These interventions are controversial and may even be dangerous, so here we’ll stick to the essential actions you need to take to support the snakebite victim, minimize further damage, and maximize a positive outcome.
Assess the situation
Try to identify the type of snake involved, or remember its markings and shape for later identification. If antivenom is needed, knowing the type of snake can be of great help since different antivenoms are used for different snakebites. Avoid approaching or handling the snake, however, even if it’s dead, for risk of becoming a victim yourself.
Rattlesnakes, coral snakes, copperheads, and water moccasins are the main venomous species in the U.S. All significant bites will leave fang marks, from one to four depending on the angle of the bite and the depth of penetration. The larger the snake and the smaller the victim, the more dangerous the bite tends to be. Bites on the head, neck, and upper trunk are more dangerous than those on the extremities.
The more pain and the more rapid and extensive the swelling, the more serious the bite reaction is and the more venom that was likely injected. Snake venom can destroy tissue, damage organs, and disrupt blood clotting; in the worst cases, it can lead to loss of limbs, damaged organs, or death. Any evidence of spontaneous bleeding, changes in mental status, signs of shock, widespread bruising, cold sweats, fast or slow heart rates, breathing difficulty, nausea, vomiting, general weakness, paralysis, or seizures point to very serious poisoning and require emergency care. (A snakebite with little or no reaction other than pain at the puncture site is not likely to represent a significant poisoning.)
First things first
Nevertheless, any bite from a venomous snake should be considered a medical emergency as life-threatening symptoms can develop quickly. Here is what you need to do while calling 911 and/or transporting the victim to the nearest hospital emergency room:
- Remain calm so that you can be of better assistance.
- Immobilize and loosely splint an extremity that was bitten. Keep the victim still and quiet to lower their metabolism and reduce the rate of the venom’s spread throughout the body.
- Position the person so the bite is at or below heart level.
- Remove jewelry and loosen anything tight before any significant swelling occurs.
- Clean the wound gently, and cover with a clean dressing.
- Do not apply ice or tourniquets; do not attempt to cut the wound to remove the poisons.
- Avoid any stimulants or alcohol that could increase metabolism or interfere with further evaluation or treatment.
Homeopathic remedies can be an important adjunct or even a curative intervention in the treatment of the snakebite victim. This should be attempted only while getting as quickly as possible to the nearest emergency medical facility. Even so, the well-meaning lay person can often work the kind of homeopathic miracle that we saw in the story of Bob, our canine friend.
The principle of individualization–matching the unique symptoms of the individual to the indications for the remedy–applies as much to snakebites as to any other condition treated with homeopathy. Here are some remedies to consider for snakebite injuries, using either a 30c or 200c potency.
Aconite. Useful at the initial stages, when the person has great fear of death, with anxiety or panic and restlessness.
Lachesis. May help the individual who hasprostration, restlessness, painful swelling, bruising, and possibly bleeding; the person typically cannot bear anything tight around them (e.g., tight necklines or waistbands) and may be loquacious.
Cedron. Known in herbal and homeopathic medicine for its “powers of antidoting snakebites.”
Ledum. Useful for puncture wounds, especially when the wound feels cold and is relieved from cold applications. The person may have muscle twitchings or spasms near the area of the bite.
- Indicated for dullness, weakness, exhaustion, and marked drowsiness; the wound may be infected, septic-looking, and painful.
Arsenicum album. May help chilly, anxious, restless people, who fear death and desire company. They may have burning pains that are relieved by heat.
Hypericum perforatum. Indicated for neuralgic, shooting pain around wounds of nerve-rich areas, such as fingers and toes.
Carbo vegetabilis. Useful for bite reactions that have progressed into shock, coldness, blue discolorations, weak pulse, clammy sweat, and collapse.
Giving the remedy
In the early stages after a snakebite, repeat the best-selected remedy as often as every few minutes. Look for any signs of response, either in the person’s general improved comfort level or well-being, or local changes in pain, swelling, or the rate at which the reaction is progressing. If after a dose or two, you observe no improvement or an actual worsening of symptoms, move on to the next best remedy option.
Once improvement is clearly well under way, stick with the remedy that is working and repeat it less frequently–specifically when progress halts or when symptoms start to return. Only change to a different remedy when you observe no further effect of the remedy being given or when new symptoms appear–as with any condition under homeopathic care. If you have access to a variety of potencies of a remedy that has worked but now is not working as well, try giving a higher potency before changing to a completely different remedy. If you only have one potency available of a remedy that has worked but is now not working as well, try putting it in water and stirring or shaking (succussing) it to slightly increase its potency, in order to get it to work longer.
Good homeopathic sense
Naturally, there are other remedies outside this list that may be useful in snakebites, and they may perform as well or better, depending on the circumstances. As in all homeopathic treatment, the individual symptoms are our guide. While there is no consensus as to any specific group of remedies to have on hand, the arsenal of remedies above will likely provide effective treatment for many snakebites. When the appropriately chosen homeopathic remedy is administered early and judiciously in such a potentially life-threatening circumstance, the need for antivenom or surgical intervention, once at the hospital, may be minimized or even avoided entirely.
Avoid them if you can!
–Snakes are most active in warm weather and at night, from March to November.
–When hiking, wear boots and long pants, watch where you step, and avoid climbing on woodpiles or rock piles where venomous snakes may be hiding.
–Never put your hand into bushes or behind rocks where you can’t clearly see what’s underneath.
–Light your path with a flashlight at dusk and at dark.
–Walk with sure steps, and consider carrying a hiking staff. Snakes respond to vibrations in the ground and will scurry away when they feel you coming. Remember, they only attack humans when they feel cornered or threatened.
Douglas Falkner, MD, MHom, is founder of The Falkner School for Homeopathy and chief instructor for its practitioner training program, “Homeopathy Through Simplicity: The Objective Observer Course.” Having worked as an Emergency Medicine physician, Dr. Falkner combines extensive conventional medical knowledge with a deep understanding of the homeopathic healing art. He maintains a busy homeopathy practice in Ashland, Oregon, and offers phone consultations nationally and internationally. His next Three-Year Practitioner Training Program is currently enrolling students. For information, www.thefalknerschool.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
PHOTO CREDIT: Ellen Falkner