In early August, snake collector Matt Wilkinson of Portland grabbed a 20-inch rattler off the highway near Maupin in Central Oregon. Three weeks later, in...
PORTLAND — In early August, snake collector Matt Wilkinson of Portland grabbed a 20-inch rattler off the highway near Maupin in Central Oregon.
Three weeks later, in a show of daring for an ex-girlfriend, Wilkinson stuck the snake in his mouth. Near death with a tongue swollen to the point it spilled out of his mouth and blocked his throat, he sought emergency-room treatment. Trauma surgeons at the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) saved his life.
The 23-year-old became a celebrity of sorts on broadcast- and cable-news channels all over the country Tuesday. On the phone, still out of sorts with sore muscles and nerves from the venom, he sounded circumspect.
Matt. Dude. How?
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“You can assume alcohol was involved,” he said. Actually, not just beer. Something he chose to describe as a “mixture of stupid stuff.”
Friends were over for a barbecue. A pit was being readied for a backyard bonfire. He himself had downed a six-pack. An ex-girlfriend at the party asked him for a beer. He handed her one, not realizing said snake was also in his hand.
“She said, ‘Get that thing out of my face,’ ” Wilkinson said. “I told her it was a nice snake. Nothing can happen. Watch.”
He stuck the snake in his mouth. “It got ahold of my tongue,” he said.
In pain and finding it hard to breathe, he quickly arranged to be driven to the hospital by his ex-girlfriend. “She was the only one sober,” Wilkinson said.
Two blocks from his home, Wilkinson knew he was in big trouble. They stopped to ask a police officer for help. That’s the last thing he remembers before waking up at OHSU.
Trauma surgeon Dr. Richard Mullins took the case after emergency-room physicians were unable to get a breathing tube down Wilkinson’s throat.
Wilkinson’s engorged tongue was sticking out of his mouth. Snake venom thins the blood, and Wilkinson was bleeding quite noticeably from the bite wounds.
Mullins cut a hole in Wilkinson’s neck to insert the breathing tube. Physicians consulting with Dr. Zane Horowitz of the OHSU Poison Control Center then gave Wilkinson antivenin.
They moved Wilkinson to the intensive-care unit, where he was kept heavily sedated for several days until the swelling went down. “Then we let him wake up,” Mullins said.
Horowitz said about 50 people a year are seen by the Poison Control Center after being bitten by rattlers or other poisonous snakes. Most are hit on the legs. Very few have been bitten on the tongue, he said.
Wilkinson, who works in concrete construction, has been unable to return to work. His muscles and nerves are out of whack from the venom and possibly lack of oxygen.
Friends at work that he’s spoken with are pretty blunt. “They were like, ‘What the heck were you thinking?’ ” Wilkinson said.
“It’s my own stupidity.”