Ridgecrest Regional Hospital (RRH)– The Johnson twins, daughters of Travis and Jennifer of Ridgecrest, had an unusual celebration to mark their 10th birthday this month. Professional reptile handlers came to talk to the family and their guests about these desert creatures, how to handle them safely, and how to avoid the most dangerous species.
If you know the Johnson’s story, this is just part of how they help families avoid a harrowing experience of a potentially deadly bite from a Mojave Green snake.
“Even though it’s in our past, and I am still happy to help educate people, I can still get emotional talking about it,” said Jennifer Johnson, mother of three.
On May 8, 2021, Devynn and Alyx (7 years old) spent time with Grandma Barb Hill at her Inyokern residence. The girls were walking out of the house on their way to breakfast, only to discover that a Mojave Green was lurking in the sand at the base of the porch steps.
“Alyx noticed it first and hollered ‘snake!’ which is what we taught them to do,” said Jennifer.
The snake was startled from its coil and struck Devynn on the inner left ankle. Devynn chucked her booster seat at it in response, and Barb followed up by cutting off the head of the snake.
Devynn did not feel anything at first, but then she and her family saw a trickle of blood on her leg. Soon after, she felt a slight tingling in her foot.
Being well-versed in snake safety protocol, Barb began making phone calls to the girls’ parents — and, most importantly, to the hospital to let them know what had happened and that they were on the way there.
The Mojave Green is among the most venomous snakes in the world. Although about half the bites worldwide are “dry bites,” meaning envenomation has not occurred, the death rate for untreated venomous bites is about 40 percent.
“Because the hospital was ready for them, they could come right through the back entrance of the emergency room,” Jennifer recalled. She arrived within seconds of her mother and children and took Devynn into her arms as soon as they met.
“I remember this patient very well,” said Dr. Stephane Crapo, emergency medicine physician and director of the emergency department, who was given special permission by the family to comment.
“It was an incredible case. Her family acted so quickly, and it saved her life.”
Not only did the family call ahead, they could identify the snake, “which was very helpful in getting her treated quickly.”
The Mojave Green is a pit viper with the most concentrated venom of any snake in the world. The venom contains both a hemotoxin, which causes swelling, tissue damage, circulation issues, coagulation, and internal bleeding, as well as a neurotoxin, the effects of which include muscle weakness, numbing, loss of memory, and vision, headache, and vomiting.
“The symptoms can be delayed, so when she came in, she looked pretty good,” recalled Dr. Crapo. “But she began to deteriorate quickly.”
Devynn was brought into the resuscitation bay and examined more thoroughly. “As her symptoms worsened, we could confirm that she had been envenomated. Mojave Greens can deliver a deadly dose of venom, and it is always more dangerous when you see envenomation in children because they have a smaller mass over which the toxins are distributed.”
RRH staff administered antivenin (also called antivenom), which neutralizes the venom injected by snakes.
“We stabilized her to transport her to Loma Linda. We knew she needed ICU-level care,” said Dr. Crapo.
“Everything happened very quickly, but Dr. Crapo and the hospital staff were Incredible!” said Jennifer. “They explained everything that was happening and what they were doing.”
She also recalled the rapid decline in her daughter. “I remember she had a great attitude about everything. Then there came a point where she started having difficulty staying conscious, then she got hungry but couldn’t eat. After a while, she was vomiting and inconsolable.”
By this time, the family was arranging for Devynn’s transportation to a trauma center.
“My husband left at this point to meet her there. She was not doing well, so I know he was very anxious on the drive.”
Jennifer, who had initially thought she could fly with her daughter, had her moment of crisis when she put her fragile child on the life flight and could not join her.
“I remember putting her on the helicopter knowing I wasn’t going to be there, and she and I were praying, asking God’s hands of protection over her and the flight crew, that He would get them there safely,” she said.
“And I remember asking God to keep her safe and me having to trust Him … I had to relinquish that control of me not being there on the flight.”
Painful at the time, Jennifer said that it taught her trust in a powerful way, as she realized “she was His, and He was there with her.”
Ironically, by the time Travis arrived (and later Jennifer), Devynn had responded very positively to the treatment. “When my husband left, he did not know what might happen. And then he got to her room in Loma Linda, and she was sitting up in bed watching Netflix, greeting him cheerfully.”
In retrospect, Jennifer was also thankful for the one-on-one time Devynn got to spend with them over the next few days. “There was a lot of poking, prodding, IVs, medication, learning to walk on crutches. Our experience at Loma Linda and our hospital, amid a chaotic time, was positive overall.”
Devynn ended up staying several more days in Loma Linda and received a total of 20 vials of antivenin to combat the toxins. Her foot remained swollen and tender for several more weeks, but she ultimately fully recovered.
Today, the Johnson family is open about their experience — mainly because they know it could save someone else’s life. “It was a terrifying experience, but I learned a lot,” Jennifer said.
“Even for those who live in the desert, I think it’s easy to forget some of our dangers here.”
Although Mojave Green bites are relatively rare, hikers and other people who enjoy the desert environment should always be alert about their surroundings. The snake has a distinctive rattle, which sometimes gives an early warning of its proximity.
The only effective treatment for a snakebite is evaluation by a trained medical professional as early as possible.
If you are far from medical care, you can “loosely immobilize” the extremity (remove any restrictive clothing). But do not otherwise attempt pressure dressings, tourniquets, or other remedies, which can cause more damage in the long run.
“This is a very venomous snake. The patient got a potent dose of venom,” said Dr. Crapo. “But her family did all the right things to help her.”