Ten-year-old visitor to Prineville Reservoir recovering from rattlesnake bite

Photo Credit: CENTRAL OREGONIAN FILE PHOTO - Lower-elevation open and rocky habitats are more favorable to rattlesnakes.Ten-year-old Eithen Hamilton was visiting the Prineville Reservoir last weekend with his mom Aimie and other family members and friends, to enjoy some tubing on the water.

When Eithen went ashore to play on the rocks, he reached into a small crevice for a dropped toy and was bitten by a baby rattlesnake.

According to Karen Yeargain, public health preparedness nurse with the Crook County Health Department, a young child being bitten by a juvenile rattlesnake is the worst possible combination.

“The young snakes don’t have as much control over the amount of venom they inject so it tends to be an all or nothing bite,” she said. “Being bit by a small snake is more likely to involve more venom so the more severe the symptoms. It definitely makes it a higher level emergency.”

Due to his age, initial responders called for a helicopter to take him to St. Charles in Bend, where he was immediately dispatched via air ambulance to Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland.

Corey Heath, district wildlife biologist with the Bend office of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that the snake was probably shaded up and resting.

“Through no fault of the child, he just happened to put his hand down where the snake was,” he said. “And, the snake, not knowing what it was, bit in a defensive mode.”

Heath said that visitors to Central Oregon should be aware of the type of terrain they are in when it comes to the potential for encountering a rattlesnake. Although these snakes can be seen throughout the region, forested areas at higher elevations yields a lower density of the snake, whereas lower-elevation open and rocky habitats are more favorable to the snake.

Heath mentioned the Prineville Reservoir area and Crooked River Canyon as two prime locations for rattlesnakes.

“These are open, rocky, shrub and grass dominated areas with no overstory and conifer canopy,” he said. “And, if I am down in the lower Deschutes River canyon, I am looking for them every step.”

Lisa Clark, public affairs specialist with the Prineville BLM office, said that the Western Rattlesnake is generally considered to be a non-aggressive snake, unless it is startled or deliberately provoked.

“That would include a hand coming down into where they were hiding,” she said. “That tends to lead to bites to the extremities.”

Clark advised people to always watch where they are placing their hands and feet, a definite challenge when it comes to young children.

“I remember being a kid and wanting to explore,” said Clark. “So, it would be good if parents simply warn them to walk a little bit slower and pay attention to where they put their hands.”

Clark added that most snakes will attempt to warn you that they feel threatened, but if a hand or foot is placed near them they tend to strike.

Clark advised people to stay on established trails and wear over-the-ankle boots, avoiding places where you cannot clearly see the ground and what’s there.

“If you have to step, do so on top of a log or rock as opposed to the unseen side,” she added. “And, avoid dense brush, sage, and willow along our creeks and streams.”

Heath recommends that if anyone comes across a snake to stop moving.

“A lot of it depends on how close you are,” he explained. “If you are not within strike distance, I would say you should just back away slowly. If within strike distance, don’t move, and wait for the snake to move away.”

Heath added that a walking stick or fishing pole could be used to put it out towards the snake to draw attention away from yourself and your legs.

Spring and fall are prime season for seeing rattlesnakes, when temperatures are warm but not hot.

“If it is 100 degrees out, there will not be snakes out sunning themselves,” said Heath. “On really hot days, they tend to seek out shade under rock overhangs.”

Yeargain had a personal encounter with a rattlesnake last year, when two of her sled dogs were bitten.

“When you have eight dogs circling a snake, it is going to strike out,” she said. “One of the dogs got a lot of venom, a second got a little. The differences between the symptoms were pretty dramatic, similar to what the boy experienced.”

She listed a racing heart and significant trembling as the most obvious reactions.

If not treated properly, snake venom can cause bleeding abnormalities, resulting in a person’s blood being unable to clot and causing the potential for significant bleeding.

Regardless of circumstances, Yeargain said that all rattlesnake bites should be treated as an emergency since the amount of venom injected is unknown.

Heath added that most bites are caused by people reaching into areas where they can’t see, or, unfortunately, simply tormenting snakes.

According to of Portland, Eithen was well on his way to recovering from the incident, enjoying some chocolate cake and scheduled to be discharged from Doernbecher last Monday afternoon.

When asked what he was going to do when he got out of the hospital, he replied “Mostly keep inside. You have to keep your eye out for any snakes."

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