Texas man’s near-fatal lesson: A decapitated snake can still bite

Jeremy Sutcliffe is more stable now, but he still suffers from kidney failure and risks having some of his fingers amputated.

It is a widely known fact that a chicken with a severed head can still run, but a decapitated snake? It can still bite.

Jeremy Sutcliffe, a 40-year-old Texas native, found this out the hard way. He and his wife, Jennifer, were outside doing yard work on the morning of May 27 when she discovered a 4-foot-long, dirt-colored rattlesnake in their garden. She screamed. Her husband abandoned his lawn mower and ran to her, grabbing a shovel and lopping off the creature’s head with a single swing.

After about 10 minutes, her husband tried to dispose of the snake’s severed head, Jennifer Sutcliffe, 43, said in an interview. When he reached down, the snake — a Western diamondback — sank its fangs into his hand and held on for about 30 seconds.

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“Finally he got the snake head pulled off,” said Jennifer Sutcliffe, who is a nurse. “I called 9-1-1 and just started driving because I didn’t know where to go exactly, what hospital carries anti-venom.”

As she drove, her husband started having seizures and fading in and out of consciousness, she said. After transferring him to an ambulance, the authorities called a helicopter to take him to a hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas, about 40 miles from their home city of Sandia, that carried anti-venom.

“He said, ‘If I die, I love you,’” she recalled. “I think he knew it was bad.”

By the time he reached the hospital, his right hand — its middle and ring fingers punctured by the snake’s venomous fangs — had swelled and was covered in dark blisters. The doctors told Jennifer Sutcliffe that her husband was in septic shock and suffering from internal bleeding and low blood pressure.

Eventually, even with 26 doses of anti-venom in his body (the average treatment is between two and four), the doctors had to put him in a medically induced coma.

Four days later, on May 31, he woke up, clueless about how he had wound up in a hospital bed. Later in the week, when his memory of the attack returned, he said he wished he could go back in time and do things differently.

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“Just knowing a snake head could still bite after it dies would’ve prevented him from getting bit,” she said. “A lot of people at the hospital had no idea. There’s not a lot of education out there about what you’re supposed to do with a snake.”

A bite from a decapitated snake can be even more deadly than a bite from a living one, said Christine Rutter, a veterinarian at Texas A&M University’s Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences. If possible, a decapitated snake head will try to empty out its glands, Rutter said. It’s almost like a Hail Mary pass in football.

“All the hormones, adrenaline, is maximized,” she said, “so whenever they bite, they give it all they have.”

In some Southern states where snakes are more populous — including South Carolina, Florida and Georgia — local media outlets have tried to teach residents how to tell whether a snake is venomous and what to do if they encounter one. An expert told The Charleston Post and Courier to leave the venomous snake alone and “give it a wide berth.”

Quentin Remsburg was 19 when he got a little too close.

On Aug. 18, 2016, he was on his way home in Shade Gap, Pennsylvania, when a neighbor flagged him down. She needed help removing a timber rattlesnake from her backyard.

With a 3-foot shovel, Remsburg and another neighbor managed to chop off the snake’s head. Remsburg went to scoop the head up, but he somehow managed to fling it onto his hand, where it latched onto his left index finger. About three seconds passed before he pried it off. His whole hand was swollen.

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He was hospitalized for three days before returning home. Nearly a week later, his hand started throbbing and burning. His mother drove him back to the hospital, where he learned his blood platelet level had fallen to around 10,000. A normal count is at least 150,000.

Remsburg, now 21, learned his finger, which had turned dark blue, had developed gangrene and had to be amputated. It took him nearly a month to relearn everyday tasks, like tying his shoe and turning a doorknob.

When he heard about Sutcliffe’s injuries, he reached out on Facebook to let the Sutcliffes know they weren’t alone. “I know exactly what he feels,” Remsburg said.

Jeremy Sutcliffe is more stable now, but he still suffers from kidney failure and risks having some of his fingers amputated. On Thursday, his wife started a crowdfunding campaign to help pay the mounting medical bills. Anti-venom can cost thousands of dollars per vial in the United States, according to research from the University of Arizona.

Although he has Medicare, the couple will still shoulder about 20 percent of the costs, his wife said. Her husband qualified for the insurance program in 2011, after he was temporarily paralyzed by Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the nervous system. He hasn’t been able to work since.

She said they have marveled at his unusual medical history: “He says, I’ve got to be either the unluckiest person or the luckiest person, because I’ve survived both.”