Jennifer Sutcliffe
June 07, 2018 05:11 PM

A 40-year-old man is recovering in the hospital after receiving more than 20 doses of antivenom to save him from a bite from the severed head of a rattlesnake.

On May 27, Jennifer Sutcliffe was prepping her yard and garden for a family cookout when she came across a frightening sight amongst her flowers.

“I was pulling the grass and little weeds that were growing,” Sutcliffe, a nurse from Corpus Cristi, Texas, tells PEOPLE. “I reached down to pull a clump of grass that was growing by one of my flowers — and I almost grabbed a rattlesnake.”

The snake, a four-foot long Western diamondback, was slithering through the garden and had come dangerously close to the mother of two. Sutcliffe called out to her husband, Jeremy, who ran over with a shovel and rammed the tool into the venomous animal, decapitating it. With the snake’s head severed from its body, the couple figured they were clear of any danger, but when Jeremy reached down to dispose of the animal’s remains about 10 minutes later, the snake sunk its fangs into the fingers of his right hand.

Sutcliffe called 911 and helped her husband into their car as she tried to find a local hospital with rattlesnake antivenom available. But as she drove, Jeremy’s condition worsened, and it seemed as if they were quickly running out of time.

“We only got two miles down the road before he started going in and out of consciousness and having seizures. It was very scary,” Sutcliffe, 43, recalls. “I was trying to keep him calm, alert and awake, and just letting him know we were getting help.”

The rattlesnake's severed head
Jennifer Sutcliffe

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With Jeremy fading, Sutcliffe pulled over and waited for medical personnel, who then rushed Jeremy to a helicopter and flew him to Christus Spohn Shoreline Hospital. Once there, Jeremy went into septic shock and doctors placed him in a medically induced coma that evening.

“His blood pressure kept bottoming out, so they were giving him a lot of fluids,” Sutcliffe says. “I thought maybe he was going to be okay, but then the doctor told me it was a very grim scenario, because of the amount of venom that he got. That’s when I realized he wasn’t out of the woods.”

With her husband on a ventilator and his organs failing, doctors told Sutcliffe several times that her husband may not make it through the ordeal. Yet, Jeremy survived that first critical day, and doctors were able to stabilize him.

Jeremy came out of his coma on May 31, after receiving a total of 26 doses of antivenom, a massive amount considering snake bites typically require two to four doses, Sutcliffe says. As of Thursday, Jeremy remains in stable condition, though he is experiencing acute renal failure.

“He’s stable, but he’s still on dialysis because his kidneys aren’t working,” Sutcliffe says. “They’re doing a lot of wound care as he lost the skin on his right two middle fingers, it’s just a high risk of infection for that wound.”

The couple has set up a GoFundMe page to help pay for Jeremy’s medical expenses, which has so far raised $200 of their $10,000 goal.

The snake's body, sans head
Jennifer Sutcliffe

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According to National Geographic, when a snake is decapitated, its head still has the capacity to carry out reflexive action, such as being able to open its mouth, bite and inject large amounts of venom. They are able to keep these reflexive abilities up to an hour after having their heads severed. In a story that made headlines in 2014, a chef from China was fatally bitten by a severed cobra’s head while he prepared to cook its body for soup — some 20 minutes after he decapitated it. In January of that same year, an Austrailian man was bitten by a red-bellied black snake 45 minutes after he severed its head with a shovel.

It’s important to point out that not all snakes in North America are venomous, and many are harmless to humans. But if you are bitten by a venomous serpent — such as a rattlesnake, coral snake, water moccasin and copperhead — Mayo Clinic suggests that you remain calm, remove jewelry and tight clothing before you start to swell, and position yourself so that the bite is below or at the level of your heart until you can get medical attention.

“One of the things I’ve learned is if it ever happens again, is if we’re able to step away from the snake and not getting bitten, go into the house and call 911,” Sutcliffe says of what she would do differently. “Have them come to take care of the snake, that would be the best scenario next time.”

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