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Arizona man bitten by cobra had to wait for antivenom to be flown in

Posted: 8:30 PM, Apr 11, 2018
Updated: 2018-04-12 07:49:54-04

Russ Johnson is used to being around all sorts of snakes. From harmless to deadly snakes with enough venom able to kill 10 men with one strike. 

Johnson headed up to the Phoenix Herpetological Society in north Scottsdale, a rescue for about every type of reptile. 

One day Johnson was transporting a cobra, pulling its container. He said he didn't know the vibrations rattled the top lose.

"He was right by my arm and then struck me right here," Johnson said, pointing to his back.

Johnson said he knew it was the cobra. "I felt like I had a bad burn in my back."

The venom is so toxic that Russ knew it would eventually shut down his respiratory system.  

"I could just start to feel the burning spreading and so that mean venom is spreading," Johnson said.  

He was rushed to Banner University Medical Center in Phoenix. They're used to treating rattlesnake bites but a cobra? They didn't even have the antivenom to treat him. The closest vial of medicine was more than 800 miles away, in Denver. 

"It was difficult," said Dr. Michelle Ruha, a toxicologist at Banner. She's also one of Johnson's doctors. She tried giving him antivenom the hospital did have, hoping it would save his life. Nothing was working.

"He was no longer able to open his eyes," Ruha said. "He was becoming weak. He was having trouble speaking."

The only option was to fly the 10 vials of antivenom from Denver to Phoenix. Finally, eight hours after the bite, Johnson was starting to come back. 

"There was an angel on my shoulder," Johnson said. "Beyond Dr. Ruha, who is my personal angel, and I guarantee you that."

Today, Banner University Medical Center has the cobra antivenom on-hand. 

It's also expanding what types it does carry. It's even getting shipments of the medicine to treat bites from the taipan, the deadliest snake in the world. No. they're not native to the Phoenix but neither is a cobra. Doctors at Banner said they don't want to be caught off guard when a life is at stake.