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

Posted at 6:30 PM, Apr 11, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-12 13:22:21-04

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

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

One day Johnson was transporting the cobra, pulling its container. 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 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 Doctor 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 ten 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 Valley, but neither is a cobra. Doctors at Banner don't want to be caught off guard when a life is at stake.