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Snake Story: Care Teams Help Teen After Bite

Children's Health
Author name: Lee Health

Rattlesnake graphic

Last spring, JJ Gerhart, 14, was exploring the ponds around his home in Punta Gorda, looking for a place to fish. As JJ stepped into a ditch, a rattlesnake, coiled and hidden in the brush, bit him.

JJ, recognizing the seriousness of what happened, ran for help to Burnt Store Road, the nearest roadway. He spotted people on a golf cart who called 911, according to ABC-7 News.

Charlotte County Fire/EMS loaded JJ into the ambulance, where EMTs gave him Benadryl and a steroid as they drove to a hospital in Punta Gorda. JJ received anti-venom serum at the hospital, from which he was airlifted to Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida and admitted to its Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU).

Jessica Gerhart, JJ’s mom, recalls Alexander Ortega, M.D., a pediatric critical care physician with Lee Health, telling her and Albert Gerhart, her husband, that the hospital doesn’t commonly treat rattlesnake bites but that they were reaching out to all appropriate resources to ensure JJ received the best care.

The Gerharts said Dr. Ortega, Cassie Maselter, RN-critical care, Ana Scaliante, RN, and others on the care team made them feel comfortable right away. The couple was grateful JJ didn’t have to leave the area to receive treatment. As a result, Albert could continue working at his job near the children’s hospital while Jessica spent time with JJ and her other children. Extended family members didn’t have to travel far to comfort JJ in the hospital, either.

Most snakes in Florida are harmless

Florida is home to about 44 species of native snakes, six of which are venomous, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Four of those venomous snakes inhabit our area: eastern diamondback rattlesnake, dusky pygmy rattlesnake, Florida cottonmouth, and eastern coral snake. 

Most Florida snakes are harmless, even the venomous species, unless stepped on or provoked.

What to do when you encounter a snake

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission advises you to “stand back and observe” should you come upon a snake. Snakes, like most of the wildlife species in our area and waters, would rather avoid encounters and usually will flee. You can learn more about snakes and how to recognize them here.

PICU’s pediatric experts and Child Life Specialists get JJ home

After spending 11 days in Golisano Children’s Hospital’s PICU, JJ was transferred to the 5th floor for three days before he was able to go home.

“During those first nine days, I didn’t think I’d be bringing him home,” Jessica says. “His body had been through so much. JJ was drained, had trouble breathing, and wanted to give up,  But Adam (Ansel Davis, a Patient Technology Specialist on Golisano Hospital’s Child Life Services team) kept encouraging him and telling him he had more games and a drone he could fly if he got out of bed.”

As soon as JJ felt stronger, he asked to see Adam. JJ played video and VR games in the virtual reality room and later was able to go outdoors and fly the drone.

“I would never want to go through an experience like this again, but if I had to, I’d be okay if I could be there with the same people,” Jessica says. “Considering it was such a tragic situation, everyone at the hospital made it feel like home fairly quickly. I don’t ever want to take any of my kids to any other hospital.”

As for JJ, he’s had physical therapy and continues to work toward making a full recovery.

He’s also back out fishing again but stepping a little more lightly.

What to do if a snake bites you?

The most important thing to do if you or someone is bitten by a snake is to call 911 immediately. Visit this list of other helpful “Snakebite Dos and Don’ts,” courtesy of the University of Florida’s Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation.