But the reality is that snakebites are few and far-between. On average, 504 people are bit per year in all of Costa Rica, according to a review of medical facility data by Mahmood Sasa from the University of Costa Rica. And thanks to the advent of powerful and very toxic antivenins, most snakebite victims, like Pelada resident Sophie Ballegeer, survive the experience.
In June of 2009, Ballegeer was arriving at a friend’s house when she felt a light touch on her baby toe, and recognized the sensation of two teeth biting her. A friend of hers drove her to the hospital in Nicoya, where a doctor was able to determine that she was bitten by a Coral snake, based on the small bite marks and her symptoms. The Coral snake is one of the most venomous snakes known, but also a very small snake that in most cases recoils when provoked instead of biting.
“I could follow the pain spreading,” Ballegeer recalled, tracing the origin of the pain along her leg. “I started to feel intense, terrible pain, like birth contractions; it was so horrible. They even gave me morphine, but it didn’t work.”
What followed was a course of antivenin, an effective, but extremely powerful decoction of snake venom and sheep serum, shots of penicillin to counter infections, and leg paralysis for days after the first antivenin treatment. It took three weeks of treatments, allergic reactions and hospitalizations before she was back to normal.
So, if you don’t want to live Ballegeer’s experience, try to avoid circumstances in which bites are more likely. Andrea Prendas, a representative of MINAET in Hojancha, explained that dead foliage, fallen trees and other things which create a shaded and damp area are typically enjoyed by hungry snakes as blinds from which to observe and catch prey.
“We recommend that you don’t get too close to rivers or dead trees and foliage,” she said. “Try not to touch trees without looking. Open your eyes. If you see a snake and it’s very close, don’t try to run away or attempt to step on the snake.” Wearing heavy-fabric pants during treks and hikes is also a necessity, as most of the smaller snakes can’t bite through leather, thick denim and other rough-spun outdoor fabrics.
What to Do If You Are Bitten
But what if the unimaginable actually happens? “Keep calm,” advised Dr. Kattia Porras Chacon, a local private practitioner in Nosara. “If you’re bitten, go to the hospital immediately. Do not try to suck or apply pressure to the bite. Only hospitals keep antivenin in stock because the antidote has bad side effects, so it has to be administered in a facility which can monitor and control the effects.”