MONTGOMERY COUNTY

Sam Pettengill of Montgomery County Survives Copperhead Snakebite

Sam Pettengill at the hospital.
Sam Pettengill at the hospital. (Dan Morse - Washington Post)

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By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

If you were a baby copperhead snake in Montgomery County and you wanted to bite someone, you could do a whole lot worse than pick Sam Pettengill.

For starters, there was the place the snake slithered into: Pettengill's studio apartment at Kunzang Palyul Choling, a Buddhist temple near Poolesville, next to woods by the Potomac River. Animals are loved there.

Then there is Pettengill himself, who was still laid up yesterday at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital. The 36-year-old has been known to buy crickets and worms from bait shops, bring them back to the woods and set them free.

"It's about accumulating merit," he said of such acts.

Pettengill was recovering nicely yesterday -- after four rounds of antivenin -- and was expected to return to the temple shortly.

It was about 11 p.m. Sunday when he walked into his apartment and found the snake. It was so small -- about the size and thickness of a pencil, he said -- that he figured it was harmless and picked it up mid-body with his right hand.

The snake suddenly coiled back, striking Pettengill's right index finger. Twice. Pettengill grabbed the snake behind its head with his left hand and placed it in a 1 1/2 -foot-tall glass flower vase.

He received help from two friends in the prayer room, John Pelletier and Elizabeth Cohn. Pelletier searched "poisonous snakes Maryland" on his iPhone, and the three concluded that it was a Timber rattlesnake.

Before heading to the hospital, Pettengill carried the vase onto the temple grounds to the Enlightenment Stupa, a 36-foot-tall sacred structure. He walked clockwise around the stupa with the snake for about three minutes, offering "prayers for a higher rebirth," Pettengill recalled.

Then, in a grassy area near a marsh, he turned over the vase and let the snake slither away.

Yesterday, after describing the snake to an expert from the state Department of Natural Resources, Pettengill learned that it was almost certainly a copperhead.

Copperheads are the only known poisonous snakes in Montgomery, officials said. Timber rattlesnakes, also poisonous, have been found in Frederick County and points west.

At the emergency room at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, as he examined Pettengill's swelling hand and forearm, David Srour knew right away that he was dealing with a poisonous snake bite. He has seen about a dozen in his career.

In most cases, Srour said, snake bite victims arrive with the snake that bit them, the snake being dead. Not so with Pettengill.

"He was very calm. It was unusual, I thought," Srour said. "He talked about the snake in an almost reverential tone."


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