Survivors of Taipan bites

Pastor George Rosendale, Hopevale, via Cooktown

It was in 1949. People had just begun to return to Hopevale after the war. I was 19, 6' 3", with a weight of 10½ stone, and very fit. A group of us were sorting timber just near the church. That must have disturbed the snake. After dinner, about 1pm, as I walked (bare-legged and bare-footed) past some wide planks, the snake shot out and had hold of me on the right ankle. It really held on. He stuck on me. I had to kick him off.

It was about 7' (2.1 m) long. I was told later it was 7' 7" (2.27 m), I think. My co-workers killed the snake. One of them just whacked it with a jolly stick. Smashed its head. At the time, the Taipan (Nguman to the Gugu yimidrr) was known and feared by Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal people. This snake was not real well known in other places then.
Taipans are everywhere up here. They're real common at Mt Webb and in the McIvor country. They seem to like that red soil 'cos there's a lot of rats there.

I knew this snake was deadly. He was even going to have a go at my mate, I think. Since we were kids, we'd been told about this snake. I ran to one of the oldies, George Bowen - the old Grandfather. He bound my leg in two places and cut the bite site. It wouldn't bleed. (Fifteen minutes after the bite, I am told, I became unconscious). Then Clarrie Hartwig cut the site with a chisel and burnt the site with those old wax matches. That made it bleed.

I was taken to Cooktown on a truck. That's about 50 km away over a rough road. In town, people rang round and found a Dr Thomas, on holiday from Victoria. By now it was night. Dr Thomas told me later I'd nearly bled to death. Blood was flown from Cairns for me that night, by Captain Bonney, a top pilot. The airstrip had to be lit with the head lights of vehicles.
Next day, I was flown out to Cairns, still unconscious. The sisters in Cooktown told me I'd been pronounced dead four times by the doctor in Cooktown.

At Cairns Base, I was looked after by Dr Reid. I had lots and lots of needles while I was there. As I began to recover, people used to call me 'Mr Famous'. I'm the only person to have survived Taipan bite without the serum (antivenom).

The doctor said my youth and fitness helped me survive. The serum wasn't around when I was bitten. A year after I was bitten, a European bloke, Donald Duck from Cooktown, chased a Taipan and was bitten up at McIvor. He died on the road to help.

I came home after about 20 days, I think. When I left hospital, my weight was only 7 stone. For about 6 months, I lost my sense of taste. I went grey at 21, but I don't know whether that was the result of the bite or not. I was also very afraid of snakes, especially Taipans. Ram Chandra showed me how to reduce that fear gradually, by touching a harmless snake like a Carpet Python at first. I’m not afraid of Taipans now. My wife is. Up this way people respect this snake, the Taipan. Round Musgrave way, the Gu Gu Taipan people wouldn't kill a Taipan. If someone else does, it sort of upsets them.

For 6 months after the bite I had a check up every week. Then, for the next 6 months I saw the doctor in Cooktown monthly. It took me a long time to regain my weight.
I know I am a lucky man. There are still plenty of Taipans around Hopevale. People know to stay away from them.

Ann Wakefield RN, Cooktown Hospital and Community Health Service, Cooktown

This might seem strange. In the weeks before I was bitten, I'd had nightmares about snake bite and drowning at sea. I couldn't do much about the latter, but I read up on snakebite procedure, checked the location of our (restrictive) bandages, and ensured everyone in the family knew where they were.
It was 8 January, 1995, after work at about 6.00 pm. I was still 'on call' and was walking on the almost bare earth crossing of Scrubby Ck on our place (Endeavour Valley). Something touched me. I saw nothing till then. Possibly, I just walked too close to the snake. I hadn't taunted it. Nothing. When I saw the snake, I knew it was a Taipan - the glitter, the colour. It was a shiny, dark, blackish-tan, whopping big one, round 8 feet (2.4 m). I realised I'd been bitten when I looked at the mid-calf area of my left leg. There were two tiny little marks close together (4 mm apart). They looked too close to have come from where I knew the fangs would be in such a big snake. The snake was thick (diameter 8.0 cm), with a big head. Now the person 'on call' for the hospital was the patient, not the nurse.

I yelled for help. I must have yelled loud enough for the family to hear over that Lister generator we have, because Eric (my son-in-law) came running. By then, I had tied my shirt as tight as I could, round my leg above the bite. I had sat down and was prepared. Warwick (my husband) came down with the Toyota. 'Get in', he said. I said, 'No, bandages first'. When the bandages were on, I got in the car which was right beside me. Eric ran inside and phoned to advise Cooktown Hospital. Warwick drove to Cooktown Hospital. By the time we reached the Endeavour R. bridge (about 10 min later), the symptoms started: blurred vision, like looking through perspex with water running on it; and an unbelievable headache. It took 20 minutes to reach the hospital. By then, I had awful stomach cramps and could hardly breathe. There was no pain at the bite for about 4 hours. When it began, it was awful, very intense. It lasted for 6 weeks.
I'm sure (the late) Dr Mick McLoughlin saved my life. He knew exactly what to do. He took my word about the identification of the snake. I was symptomatic, anyway. He also knew my allergy record, which is a bad one.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service came for me. Two and a half hours post-bite, semiconscious, I was in the Intensive Care Unit at Cairns Base Hospital. My kidneys didn't work for 3 days. After 6 days, I was discharged, still fragile, from hospital.

The after effects of this bite have been fairly bad. My left leg below the bite is numb, not everywhere, but in a sort of jagged line, perhaps along a nerve. I get severe headaches I didn't have before. I'm also moody, according to Warwick, and I wasn't before. I'm also more driven not to put anything off till tomorrow. There are no guarantees about tomorrow. At the time of the bite, I thought I would die. And I thought 'So be it. If it were to happen, it wasn't a bad way to go'.

We see lots of Taipans here. They get relocated with a bit of lead if they're in the house. Otherwise they leave us alone and we them.
I have no fear of snakes whatsoever. If I could give advice to anyone from this experience, I'd say: 'Be alert. I never saw the snake till after the bite. The earth was almost bare on that creek crossing. That's the funny thing about this. Taipans can travel very, very fast'.

I'd say also: 'People should treat any case involving a Taipan, however small it may be, as serious and know what to do and always carry (restrictive) bandages up here. Everyone carries water. Bandages are just as important.'

The late Charles Tanner, Herpetologist, Cooktown

The late Charles Tanner made his living milking highly venomous snakes, so their venoms could be used in the production of antivenom and in research into their potential medical uses. He survived many life-threatening bites, to die in his 80s, simply of old age.

About his bites, he rarely spoke. Invariably, he acknowledged the risk of accidental bites, but he regarded herpetologists who sustained bites as silly, not brave.

In 1979, following massive, accidental envenomation by a Coastal Taipan, he was treated 'by the book', receiving the best first aid, premedication and antivenom treatment devised by the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, Melbourne. His recovery was uneventful. He described the disappearance of his severe headache and the return of strength in his legs following the infusion of antivenom as miraculous. He said his therapy was like mother's milk!

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