Michael Lovatt, a 61-year-old old Sunshine Coast resident, was bitten by a venomous snake earlier this week while walking along a beach at night in the city of Quepos.
Speaking from his hospital bed at Vancouver General this morning, Lovatt said he never even saw the snake.
"All of a sudden there's this intense pain on my foot. By the time I [shone] my flashlight down on [my foot], I just see three red dots and it's sore... It went downhill real quick right after," he said.
Lovatt, who lives in Robert's Creek, went to a medical clinic in Costa Rica, but a language barrier prevented him from getting any more than minimal help, so he got on a flight to Vancouver.
Rushed to critical care
By the time he landed in Vancouver, he was in piercing pain, his kidneys were shutting down, and his blood was extremely thin and acidic, flowing freely from his lips and gums.
A friend rushed him to Vancouver General Hospital where critical care physician Andrew Neitzel said he was amazed Lovatt survived the flight.
"I was surprised he managed to fly back to Vancouver from Costa Rica," said Neitzel. "He required urgent dialysis, urgent critical care support."
Minutes later Lovatt was on death's door, hooked up to dialysis and blood transfusion machines, while the staff at the hospital attempted to diagnose his condition.
Dr. Roy Purssell, the director of the B.C. Drug and Poison Information Centre, said the snake venom also causes major problems with blood clotting.
"The patient was having bleeding from various areas, and his tears actually had turned to blood," he said
Race to get antidote
Lovatt told doctors he thought he was bitten by an ant, but the doctors soon figured out it was no simple ant bite.
Purssell said a medical team from his centre and Vancouver General Hospital managed to identify that the culprit in the attack as a type of pit viper called the fer-de-lance, or Bothrops asper, based on all of the symptoms Lovatt suffered, including damage to his kidneys.
"We deduced what had occurred, figured out which snake it had to be," he said.
The fer-de-lance is considered one of the most dangerous snakes in Costa Rica.
As dozens of blood transfusions kept him alive, doctors finally found the closest anti-venom at a zoo in Seattle.
The team contacted Woodland Park Zoo and Mark Myers, a curator at the zoo, rounded up 20 vials of antivenin, which the zoo keeps on hand for emergencies, and arranged for a zookeeper to deliver the vials to an air ambulance which flew down from Vancouver to pick them up.
"Receiving the call for help was quite a harrowing experience.We knew that time was critical and we had to move fast if we wanted to help save this patient’s life," Myers said in statement released by the zoo on Friday.
A helicopter pilot rushed the anti-venom back to Vancouver where doctors shot Lovatt full of anti-venom.
"The abnormalities and blood clotting were starting to resolve within minutes. They were dramatically better within a couple of hours, and almost back to normal within a few hours after that," Purssell said.
Lovatt is now in stable condition in Vancouver General Hospital. Purssell said he may suffer some permanent kidney damage from his ordeal.
Neitzel credited the co-operation of several medical services for working together to save the man.
"Within two hours he miraculously improved. It's hard to explain it. It was almost magical," said Neitzel. "He would have died. There's no question this would have taken his life."
"A combination of all of the services coming together at Vancouver General Hospital, the emergency department, the hematology department, orthopedics and plastic surgery, the blood bank, BC Ambulance Service — without all of these groups working together to help this patient, we're fairly certain the outcome would have been tragic."