The first bite felt like a bee sting.
Susan Conlin O’Neil was walking home from dinner to her Hilton Head Island condo Wednesday night when she took a step down on the sidewalk and felt a pang in her heel.
It was really no big deal. She said to her friends, “something got me!”
Then the second bite came.
And the third.
O’Neil was bitten three times by a copperhead snake on the sidewalk outside her South Forest Beach home. The second two bites were nothing like the first.
“It felt like someone stuck an electric knife in my leg, like a volt of electricity,” she told The Island Packet. “The pain went up my leg.”
O’Neil, who has lived on the island for 27 years, knew she had to get a photo of the culprit and get to the hospital. But in the moments after the bites, all that went out the window.
“One of my biggest problems after the bite was panic: ‘What got me? What do I need to do? What’s the immediate first aid? How do I know what kind of snake it was?’” she said. “I’m an RN who’s retired but I spent 20 years in the ER in Chicago. And I panicked.”
O’Neil’s friends got her to Hilton Head Hospital, where she was treated for the bite.
But the swelling overtook her left leg below the knee, and the symptoms were making her miserable.
“I was throwing up like crazy and sweating. Like, sweat hitting the floor dripping,” she said.
Nearly a week later, O’Neil is still unable to walk. She’s home and holed up on the couch watching Stranger Things while the swelling subsides.
Her experience, while painful and scary, didn’t threaten her life. O’Neil said she wants others to be prepared for how to handle snake bites and, if possible, avoid them altogether.
Snake bites on the rise?
As the weather warms up across South Carolina, peak snake bite season is arriving.
Thirty-eight snake species, including six venomous species, call the Lowcountry home. Copperheads are the main culprits for bites on Hilton Head.
“Hilton Head is crawling with copperheads. I would say almost 100% of the venomous bites we see are copperheads,” Dr. Robert Clodfelter, medical director of Hilton Head Hospital’s emergency room, told The Island Packet in 2018.
Copperheads like hanging out in brush on the sides of roads and pathways. Be careful between sunset and sunrise, he said, because the snakes are most active at night in the summertime.
O’Neil said she’s seen a lot more snakes around her home in 2021, and South Carolina residents on social media have shared their encounters, too.
The Palmetto Poison Center, which tracks calls for snake bites, has received 42 calls so far this year, according to its director, Jill Michels.
That’s on par with last year, as Michels said the center had 43 snake bites calls by this time in 2020. Throughout the last year, the center handled 245 snake bite cases.
In May 2018, the center had received just 18 calls, The Island Packet reported at the time.
What to do if you’re bitten by a snake
If you are bitten by a coppherhead, the bite will be immediately painful, and symptoms will begin soon after the bite. Symptoms include swelling, pain, shock, nausea, tingling and numbness and anaphylaxis.
It’s important to get medical treatment at the nearest emergency room immediately, because bites can get serious if they’re not treated quickly.
You shouldn’t try lacerate the bite or try to extract the venom, Kevin Kremer, director of emergency services at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, told The Island Packet in 2018. He added that ice also is not very effective in snake-bite cases.
If the person bitten is experiencing shortness of breath, swelling of their lips or tongue or pounding in their chest, they should call 911, Kremer recommended.
Here’s what herpetologists at Savannah River Ecology Laboratory recommend doing — and not doing — after a snake bite:
Do not eat or drink anything.
Stay calm and do not run or engage in strenuous activity.
Remove all jewelry or watches from affected area.
Take note of the snake’s size and pattern or take a photo, but do not try to capture or kill the snake.
Get to the nearest emergency room.