"Venom 1" Team Saves Snakebite Victims

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
August 21, 2002

One of the few civilian planes in the skies on September 12th was carrying antivenin to treat a 62 year-old diabetic snake importer who had been bitten on the 11th by a seven-foot Taipan—an exotic from New Guinea, and one of the world's most deadly snakes.

The job of treating the man fell into the hands of Captain Al Cruz, a firefighter and paramedic with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department and founder of its snakebite unit, "Venom 1." This is the only firefighting unit in the country equipped to deal with snakebites.

Lawrence van Sertima, the victim, had been handling snakes professionally since his early twenties in Guyana, where he grew up. While working in the Miami-based "hot room" of Zoological Imports 2000, Inc.—where more than 250 venomous snakes were housed—he was bitten while returning the Taipan to its cage after administering medical care.

"It is the equivalent injury to a carpenter getting hit with hammer, maybe a bit more painful—this job is risky and a bite comes with the territory," said van Sertima. "And this guy got me good."

"I left the hot room feeling dizzy, sat down, and within 10 to 15 minutes I just keeled over," he added.

Van Sertima was taken to Miami Baptist Hospital where he was kept breathing for 16 hours on a ventilator and given vial upon vial of antivenin. As the supply of antivenin dwindled and van Sertima showed no signs of recovery, Cruz called the reptile curator at the San Diego Zoo at 1:30 a.m. on September 12th, 2001—this was the only other store of the antivenin in North America.

Then came the Federal Aviation Administration. By the wee hours of the morning, Cruz had convinced the director of the FAA to waive the flight ban, imposed after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, for an air ambulance delivery of antivenin to Miami. "The reason I am here today is because of Al Cruz," said Sertima.

Black Mamba Bite

Cruz founded the antivenin program serendipitously. In March 1998 a black mamba bit a snake handler, and no antivenin existed in any of the nearby hospitals. Cruz was contacted because of his reputation as an avid amateur herpetologist. By chance he knew someone who raised black mambas and had the antivenin, and was able to save the man's life. But the episode emphasized the need for a centralized antivenin bank. Cruz founded the Antivenin Program in July 1998.

Now the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Antivenin Bank—a humble refrigerator containing 25 different antivenins for 95 percent of the world's venomous snakes—is the most extensive in the U.S., said Cruz. Venom 1 provides antivenin to hospitals all over the Caribbean and eastern U.S. The bank has supplied antivenin as far north as Ontario, Canada, and as far south as French Guyana.

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