When she was a little girl, Christie Kelly had a deep fear of being bitten by a snake. That made what happened the morning of May 30 all the more horrible.
Christie, a 24-year-old yoga instructor who lives in the Woodmoor neighborhood of Silver Spring, Md., was awoken from her slumber around 6 a.m. by a searing pain in the webbing between the thumb and forefinger of her left hand.
“I leapt out of my bed and turned on my light,” Christie told me on the phone from her bed at Holy Cross Hospital. “There was this huge snake in my bed.”
“Huge” is a relative term. Anacondas can grow to 18 feet long, as can Burmese pythons. The snake in Christie’s bed was a copperhead, which seldom get longer than three feet. But it was big enough. It had bitten Christie — twice, it turned out.
“It was the most painful thing I’ve experienced,” she said.
Christie’s screams woke her family, and her mom and dad ran down to her basement bedroom thinking she was having a nightmare. There was Christie, her hand already starting to swell from the venom. And there was the snake, still in her bed.
While Christie’s father, Tom, dispatched the snake (“I found a curtain rod, and it worked,” he said), her mother, Debbie, bundled her in the car and sped on the Beltway to Holy Cross, one exit away.
Copperheads are common to the eastern and central United States. Their preferred prey are rodents, insects, birds, amphibians and other reptiles.
If it seems like there have been more copperhead sightings in our area recently, that doesn’t necessarily mean there are more copperheads.
“I think it’s a combination of things,” said Jonathan McKnight, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “Number one, they’re much more common than people realize. They’re around us.”
“Another factor that’s probably in play — though probably not in Silver Spring — is that people are more and more replicating a wonderful snake habitat in their neighborhoods. We like to have a big house with lots of trees and streams in between. That’s great for us, but it’s also great for copperheads.”
Ryan Butler, a wildlife ecologist with Montgomery Parks, said: “Word does spread more quickly when people do see them. A photograph can be shared more quickly now. It may be no different than it was 25 years ago.”
Earlier this month, Ryan’s office posted a sign at Chevy Chase Local Park on Shepherd Street headlined “Caution! Snake Habitat.” It had received a phone call from a resident whose friend’s dog was reportedly bitten in the park and had needed extensive veterinary treatment. (The dog recovered.)
Park staff searched the area but didn’t find any copperheads. “But because of a direct report of a bite, we thought, ‘Hey, let’s just raise awareness and have people be a little more vigilant,’ ” Ryan said.
If you’re hiking through the woods or pawing through brush outside your house, be careful.
“The best advice is situational awareness,” said Jonathan. “The first time you turn that canoe over, who knows who’s moved into it over the last six months?”
Ryan said copperheads are not aggressive toward people most of the time. “They want to stay out of sight, out of mind,” he said, “but they will strike if threatened or stepped on.”
Or rolled on. That’s what seems to have happened in Christie’s case. Her house isn’t far from Northwest Branch, in the sort of wooded suburb that’s common in our area. Recent construction — the entire front stoop of the house was excavated — may have disrupted the snake or provided a way for it to slither into the cool finished basement and into Christie’s warm bed.
By the time Christie had the first of four treatments with antivenom, the swelling had spread to her shoulder. Blood circulation was impeded, and she developed compartment syndrome.
Said Christie: “When the hand surgeon met with me, he said, ‘We need to perform surgery now. If we wait any longer, we’re going to have to amputate.’ ”
Two days after the bite, Christie had the first of three surgeries. Her arm was sliced open to relieve pressure and to clean out dead and infected tissue. (Snakes have very dirty mouths.)
Christie noticed that the dozens of stitches that crisscross her left arm are in the shape of a snake.
Christie said her doctors have told her to expect a six-month recovery period, quite a hardship for a yoga teacher. “I have to walk on my hands for a living,” she said.
Christie was discharged from the hospital Wednesday. She wasn’t that upset about having to spend so much time there. “At least there are no snakes here,” she said. “Going back home, I don’t see myself going back in the same room or the same bed.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.