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May 29, 2019

Snakebit, Part 1

It took almost dying for Kyle Dickman to look at the world in a new light. (Photo: SteveByland/iStock)
It took almost dying for Kyle Dickman to look at the world in a new light.

When Kyle Dickman set out on a spring road trip with his wife and infant son, he was fueled by a carefree sense of adventure that had defined his life. Then he got bit by a rattlesnake in a remote part of Yosemite National Park. The harrowing event changed his entire outlook on the world. Now he’s on a quest to understand the toxins that nearly killed him—and trying to come to terms with a world where everything slithers.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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EPISODE BEGINS 

Outside Podcast Theme: From PRX and Outside Magazine. This is the Science of Survival. 

Peter Frick-Wright (host): People say that after you become a father, there's a moment that everything changes, or that you realize that it has changed. For Outside contributing editor Kyle Dickman, there's really no mystery about when that moment was. 

(in interview with Kyle Dickman) Where does this start for you? 

Kyle Dickman: It starts the day my son was born. I mean, we wouldn't have been in Yosemite if it weren't for Bridger. 

Frick-Wright: Kyle Dickman is someone I've known about much longer than I've known him personally. Before joining Outside, he was a hot shot firefighter, and then a filmmaker for National Geographic, traveling the world making adventure TV. He did big rivers in the Congo and China, explored Southeast Asia, Central America. Eventually he got serious about writing and worked at a magazine in Portland right before I did so everyone knew him and loved him. Then he went to Outside, but moved on to write a book about wildland firefighting just a few months before I started there. 

Anyway, in this month's issue of Outside, Kyle has an incredible story about a guy who is single handedly, and I think we can all agree foolishly, pushing forward an area of scientific research that might very well save hundreds of thousands of lives and limbs from being lost tp snakebite every year. But before we get to that story, it helps to understand how Kyle got interested in this subject at all. And to do that, I have to tell you about another story Kyle wrote for Outside that takes place around this time of year, back in 2017, just a few months after Kyle's son Bridger was born. As you might've gathered, Kyle is a guy who keeps on the move, and so after they had a baby, he and his wife, Turin, decided to stay on the move. 

Dickman: After Bridger was born, we, two weeks later, on just this like sort of absolute whim, swung by this very nice man's house in East Albuquerque, and wrote him a check for his RV and then drove home. Two weeks later, we loaded Bridger, who was at that point 6 weeks old, and our two dogs and two totally sleep deprived naive parents into our little RV and hit the road for a month. 

Frick-Wright: And at some points it was a dream. They were on the road with their two dogs, introducing their newborn son to the kinds of adventures the Dickman family was known for. 

Dickman: We went canyoneering in canyon lands and surfing on the Oregon coast and saw a bunch of friends and family that we wouldn't have seen otherwise. 

Frick-Wight: Other times, says Kyle's wife Turin, it was really, really hard. They were stuck in an RV with two dogs and a baby that turned out to be collicky, staying at undeveloped campsites, just trying to hold it together. 

Turin Dickman: We'd gone through Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and we're coming down through California. We stopped in the redwoods and had just a hell of a time there. 

Frick-Wright: There's one night where simultaneously the baby had a meltdown and the dog rolled in. Shit. 

T. Dickman: Kyle had to go throw him in the river and wash him off. Bridger’s wailing. I'm trying to soothe them. My Trump card is breastfeeding him and he wasn't taking it. And so I started crying because I don't know what to do. (laughs)

Frick-Wright: Eventually Kyle came back and they played rock, paper, scissors for who took the baby for a walk and who did the dishes and Bridger was screaming so bad that Turin, who won, chose dishes. So Kyle took the baby for a walk 

T. Dickman: He went out, he didn't have his phone or a head lamp, and just went for a stroll on like a nature trail. Ended up getting lost, like darked out in the forest with a screaming baby on his chest. Finally after, gets back to the trailer and then he starts weeping cause he's like, Oh my God, what have I done? 

K. Dickman: Well, Turin and I always say that we took the hardest thing that we've ever done and made it harder. 

Frick-Wright: The final destination of their month long road trip was Yosemite National Park. Kyle’s brother lived there and his parents would be visiting, so it'd be kind of a Dickman family reunion. And I should say Kyle's not the only adventurous member of his family, they keep right up with him. His brother, Garrett lives in Yosemite because he works for the park and can climb El Cap in a day. His mom was an ER nurse, and both parents have done 800 missions on search and rescue teams. The family joke is that they raised their kids in the church of seventh day recreationalists. 

K. Dickman: This morning we were like, let's go for a wildflower hike because it's spring, we have a baby and it's a nice day. 

T. Dickman: So hiked along for a while. We got to a point where it was time for Bridger to have a snack.  

K. Dickman: We stopped to feed the baby at this bridge over this waterfall that we came to learn was called ‘toilet bowl falls.’ 

T. Dickman: Yeah. We just stopped. Everyone pulled out their snacks. 

K. Dickman: And my brother and his wife are rattling off an endless list of different wildflowers that we all pretend to remember the names of and then quickly forget. But I mean, you know, really cool, various species... 

T. Dickman: And then after Bridger was done eating, I had to change his diaper. So I sat down the changing pad in the grass...

K. Dickman: For some reason, I stepped a little bit off the road and sort of peered down into this waterfall 

T. Dickman: And all of a sudden... 

K. Dickman: The next thing I remember doing was looking down and seeing blood dripping down from just the right side of my shin and the left side of my shin. And then a diamond pattern, different coiled snake. 

T. Dickman: Kyle comes jumping up and down... 

K. Dickman: I just like, jumped up and started screaming, fuck, fuck, fuck... 

T. Dickman: ...Fuck, fuck, fuck. Like, Oh my God, what happened? 

K. Dickman: Like I imagined myself, like I don't know what I was doing, but I was definitely basically frolicking. I felt like I was like Peter Pan in a play or something...

T. Dickman: And I'm just sort of stunned and like I have a baby with it barebutt, I've got his legs up in the air, like sort of frozen, what happened? And I'm assuming that he'd gotten stung by a bee cause he's allergic to bees. 

K. Dickman: And at some point I was like, I got bit by a snake by rattlesnake. My mom said, you need to stop moving, you're going to spread the venom. And then my dad was right next to us and I looked down and I saw, like Bridger on his back and Turin was changing his diaper. And I just sort of sunk into my dad's arm and then I lost consciousness within a minute or two of the bite. 

Frick-Wright: Well, maybe we could start, with -- could you just explain what happens when a snake strikes? 

Steve Mackessy: Well, if we think about a rattlesnake, a rattlesnake will find a scent trail of something like a rodent, curl up next to it, and then wait patiently sometimes for days for the rodent to come by. When it strikes, it delivers an injection of venom and then retracts very rapidly. 

Frick-Wright: This is Dr. Steve Mackessy, Professor of Biology at the University of Northern Colorado, the School of Biological Sciences. But while he may teach biology, all his research is into venom; what it is, why it works, and how it allows these relatively small, puny animals to take down prey and defend themselves against much bigger things, entirely through chemicals. 

Mackessy: What's really happening is the snake has injected this mixture of complex proteins and peptide toxins that are not de novo poisons, but instead are are based on regulatory compounds that are found in the bodies of vertebrates, including ourselves, and it is using these modified regulators in a fashion that's inappropriate and at concentrations often hundreds to hundreds of thousands of times greater than would normally be encountered in the body. 

Frick-Wright: What Mackessy is saying is that the human body is a complex system of interacting proteins and cells that operate in harmony to allow your body to function. Whenever you do anything, run, dance, smile, breathe, even sweat, it’s because particular proteins have clicked into place and bound together with certain cells to create that response. What snake venom does is flood the body with what are basically inappropriate proteins. They look like the kind of proteins that the body uses to regulate its vital systems, but when these guys show up, they give the body bad instruction.

Mackessy: And so the net effect is everything goes haywire. 

Frick-Wright: It'd be like if your body was a city flowing with traffic. When snake venom shows up, it turns every traffic light red, so everything gets clogged up or it turns every traffic light green all at once and everybody crashes. The venom doesn't turn them purple or ruin the traffic lights necessarily. It just changes how they work, knocks the system off balance. And while one protein in the snake venom might affect the traffic lights, maybe another one affects the sewer system or the electrical grid, except it's actually your blood pressure, body temperature, or the pH of your blood. 

Mackessy: So when a snake injects all of these modified regulatory compounds, now toxins, into the body, it essentially has the effect of deregulating a whole bunch of different systems, more or less simultaneously. 

Frick-Wright: Kyle got bit by a Northern Pacific rattlesnake and the first thing he did was faint because his blood pressure dropped. Your body keeps blood pressure constant by expanding and contracting veins and arteries, making them bigger or smaller, like putting your thumb on the end of a hose. But Northern Pacific rattlesnake venom contains a protein that relaxes all those blood vessels. The veins and arteries in his body opened up wide and Kyle's heart couldn't pump blood against gravity up to his brain. So he went down. If he were a mouse, the snake would have slithered over and eaten him. Instead, his family gathered around waiting for whatever came next. And when kind of woke up, one of his main thoughts was that he didn't want his son to watch him die. 

K. Dickman: I am like slipping in and out of consciousness and then I start vomiting a lot like the hardest vomiting I've ever done. And I looked up and I saw Turin and I just remember telling her, I was like, get Bridger outta here. Like go. 

T. Dickman: He said, get Bridger outta here. And so for a lot of the time I was actually a little ways, a couple hundred yards down the road in some shade just hanging out with Bridger and just waiting. And I was in this weird space where I didn't know, like I wanted to be with Kyle, but he told me he didn't want me there or he didn't want Bridger there and he wanted me to be with Bridger. And so I was really torn about where I should be and what I should be doing. 

K. Dickman: I told her to get out -- get 'em outta here. My parents laid over me and kept my legs down, they didn't elevate it and spread the venom, and held my hand and I just sort of rolled from side to side and puked and shit for a long time. 

Frick-Wright: What's the venom doing there, making the body sort of purge itself? 

Mackessy: Yeah, that's actually kind of an unusual sort of reaction. Um, and um, I'm not familiar with any particular toxin that specifically would cause that kind of a reaction. 

Frick-Wright: Mackessy says there are a couple of different reasons that Kyle could have started vomiting and gotten diarrhea. It could have been because of the drop in blood pressure. Maybe his body responded to that drop by clenching and relaxing the muscles along his digestive tract, squeezing his stomach contents out, both ends. Or it could have been caused by some currently unidentified component of the venom. Some known compounds in rattlesnake venom do paralyzed skeletal muscles or caused them to clench. But medically, the nausea and diarrhea wasn't the worst of it because in addition to causing your bodily systems to go haywire, snake venom also contains an enzyme called metalloprotease that goes in and very specifically disrupts the cellular architecture of your body. 

Mackessy: And so the way our skin's held together, the way our muscles are held together is via these different proteins. As the enzymes in the venom cut those apart, that causes problems locally and your body tries to respond. 

Frick-Wright: When the venom gets in there and starts slicing and dicing, the body responds by flooding that area with fluids and clotting agents, trying to stop the damage and rebuild what the venom just took apart. But in this chemical chess match, a snake venom is one step ahead because it also contains a protein called disintegrant that specifically targets those clotting agents and destroys them. 

K. Dickman: You start bleeding spontaneously internally in places that you really shouldn't be bleeding cause there was no trauma to those sites. 

Frick-Wright: It doesn't just damage your body -- it sabotages your body's ability to respond and heal. 

Mackessy: So a snake bite is really a fairly complex medical emergency when it occurs. 

Frick-Wright: Complex, but with a fairly straightforward treatment, at least initially. The sooner you can get antivenom onboard, the less damage the venom can do. There's a saying when it comes to snake bites, time is tissue. They needed to get Kyle out of there. 

Audio from dispatcher: Dispatch CC.

Garret Dickman: (audio recording) Hi, this is Garret Dickman. I got a rattlesnake bite. I

Dispatcher: Oh, okay. 

K. Dickman: Pretty much the moment I lost consciousness, my brother who works for the park ran out and called 911. 

Dispatcher: Where are you? 

G. Dickman: I am below Foresta Falls, near Foresta road.  

Frick-Wright: Kyle had been bitten three miles up from El Portal and three miles down from the town of Foresta. The road between those places looks drivable on a map, but it isn't. So when his brother Garrett got hold of the park’s dispatch center, they sent a life flight helicopter and dispatched a team of paramedics and a litter team on foot in case they could get there sooner. 

K. Dickman: You know, it's like a three pronged attack more or less to come to get me. And Garret’s job was to meet these guys and lead them to the bite site to where I was. So he's running up and it's like a three mile run up to Foresta and he's sort of sprinting up there, up this Hill and he comes to this bridge, and this bridge is over this 500 foot waterfall that’s swollen with spring melt and it had been burned out by these big wildfires a couple of years earlier. All that's left are these sort of steel girders. Um, and they're wet. 

Frick-Wright: Garrett got down and did a scoot along. The girders got to the other side and kept running, three miles in 19 minutes according to rescue logs. But when he found the paramedics, their ambulance was blocked by a down tree and they're busy pulling gear from the vehicles so they could hike in on foot. And it turned out Garrett knew one of the rescuers. 

K. Dickman: He knew the guy and the guy just looked at him and said, here you take the drugs. And the paramedic threw Garrett the bag of drugs and they start running back down this road toward this bridge. And Yo-SR are just like, the most elite search and rescue team in the country; they get to this bridge, look at it, look at each other, and they say, fuck no, we're not crossing that. 

(audio from search and rescue team): We have a branch completely out on this route. Can you divert the litter team and have come up from El Portal: 

Frick-Wright: So they turned back towards Floresta, got to the side of the creek and started bushwhacking towards Kyle. And because Garret’s job was to guide them to Kyle, he and the bag of drugs went with them. 

(audio from search and rescue): Patie party went out from El Portal. They reported all bridges were intact. The road was (inaudible). 

K. Dickman: I went back and listened to the radio recordings and you can hear in their voices that like they really think that things are not going well for me. Because simultaneously, my brother's wife is on the phone with dispatch telling them about my status and what she's telling them is he’s lost consciousness, he's vomiting, he has diarrhea and all of these things are like, yeah, I guess bad signs. 

Frick-Wright: They were bad signs and the Yo-SR team knew that a life flight helicopter wasn't going to be able to land nearby. So as they walked, they called in another helicopter team, which would be able to haul Kyle up without landing. Finally, about an hour after the bite, they got to the scene. 

K. Dickman: By the time they got to me, I was, I was unresponsive and my mom, the way that she described it is, she says that I was knocking on death's door. 

Frick-Wright: We'll be right back. 

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Frick-Wright: There are about 8,000 rattlesnake bites every year in the U.S. -- usually somewhere between 9 and 15 people die. Worldwide, there's somewhere between 80,000 and 130,000 deaths each year from all types of snakes, but four times as many people lose limbs to snake bites because as the venom does its damage, turning veins, arteries, and muscles into basically jello, the structures become so broken that blood stops flowing to the right places. 

Mackessy: It can cause such severe death locally that you get necrotic lesions forming. The tissue looks blackened because it's had problems with blood supply, with nutrient supply, and also physical damage to the cells that make up the tissue itself. 

Frick-Wright: The only way to stop that tissue death is by injecting antivenom and under normal circumstances, Yosemite is one of the few places where search and rescue teams carry anti-venom. But this was early May and it hadn't been restocked yet from the previous summer. There was nothing the paramedics could do to stop the venom, but they could make Kyle more comfortable. 

K. Dickman: They get an IV rolling on me, some painkillers, some anti-nausea stuff. This is sometime around one o'clock and at that point everybody-- I think there was this big sigh of relief. Like okay, I think he's gonna make it. 

Frick-Wright: Once the helicopter team arrived, he was 45 minutes from the hospital. With Yo-SR there, it seemed within reach. But the helicopter wasn't on its way yet. And the longer Kyle went without antivenom, the more the inside of his leg turned to jello. 

(to Mackessy)What is antivenom? How does it work? 

Mackessy: Well, antivenom is based on the fact that we have an immune system map. We, meaning mammals, have an immune system that can adapt to different kinds of invasive or infectious agents. 

Frick-Wright: Antivenom dates back to the 1890s when a French scientist named Albert Calmet applied the techniques for making vaccines to venom and snakes.

Mackessy: For example, you may get a flu shot and what that is attempting to do is say, here's what the flu virus looks like, immune system kick into gear, make some antibodies, make some memory cells, so that if you see a virulent form of this, you'll counter it. 

Frick-Wright: But where as a flu shot is showing your body a weakened virus so that it can then make its own antibodies against it and be immune going forward, making antivenom is the process of farming those antibodies so that they can be injected straight into a snake bite victim and go to work. 

Mackessy: So we typically take a large mammal like a horse or sheep and we inject small amounts of venom into that animal. Ideally it's way below any kind of a pathological dose and so what happens is the animal begins to produce antibodies to those particular proteins. Anybodies themselves are proteins and as you produce more of them, that will have the effect of countering more and more of any kind of offending molecule such as a venom protein. 

Frick-Wright: When you get antivenom, it's a direct infusion of the specific antibodies needed to counteract the venom. It's like showing up with the exact right key for a lock. That is as long as you get the right antivenom developed for the exact species of snake that bit you. 

(to Mackessy) How much does rattlesnake venom vary between snakes? Or I think most people would assume that rattlesnake venom is rattlesnake venom, and is that not the case? 

Mackessy: That’s very much not the case. 

Frick-Wright: (voiceover) If you look at a rattlesnake from Southern Arizona or Northern Mexico versus one from Colorado, Mackessy says they'll have a lot of things in common, but because rattlesnakes evolve to produce venom that could incapacitate the specific pray in their territory and because that prey is constantly evolving countermeasures, the details and effects of that venom can vary drastically. 

Mackessy: There is one rattlesnake that is found in Southern Arizona and down into Mexico that has a pretty simple venom that is only about 20-25 different components in the venom, but it's the most toxic. There are others such as the Prairie rattlesnake that we have very commonly in Colorado that have perhaps a hundred or more different proteins. 

Frick-Wright: After an hour in the care of Yo-SR, Kylewas feeling better. He'd gotten anti-nausea meds and wasn't throwing up anymore. He’d gotten IV fluids and wasn't so dehydrated at 2:07 about two hours after the bite, search and rescue carried him to the helicopter pickup zone. But according to one of the Yo-SR guys that Kyle talked to you later quote, that was when things started to unravel. 

(audio from Yosemite Search and Rescue)

Frick-Wright: From the pickup point, Yo-SR realized their radios couldn't get a signal out of the canyon. Not only that, but it was a busy search and rescue day. Since Kyle's bite, there had been a series of emergencies in Yosemite: a heart attack, seizure, bears, and then a garage fire started in the town of El Portal. With radio chatter about the fire clogging the airwaves, they couldn't communicate with the helicopter so they had to wait -- but by this point the paramedics were running out of meds and fluids. 

K. Dickman: All they had with them is what they could carry and what they could carry was enough to stabilize me once, but not enough to stabilize me twice. And so drugs have a thing called the therapeutic window. You get them, they work for a while. And then you get more or they don't do anything and you returned to whatever the symptoms are, whatever's making you sick in the first place. 

Frick-Wright: As they were waiting for the helicopter, the therapeutic window was closing. And then, as he deteriorated, a bee crawled up Kyle’s leg and stung him on the thigh. Remember Kyle’s severely allergic to bees. 

K. Dickman: The paramedic wanted to hit me with an EpiPen and I didn't want to be hit with an EpiPen because I had no idea what an EpiPen would do to the rattlesnake venom in my ankle. At that point I was stable and so I was like, ah, please don't do it. Please don't. I was basically pleading with him not to inject me with it. I'm at like two and a half hours, three hours in from rattlesnake bite and everything grinds to a halt. And I just sit there in the sun sweating with a bee sting, arguing to the paramedic about getting the EpiPen. 

Frick-Wright: But as they argued, Kyle realized he wasn't having any reaction. It would be most likely just like rattlesnakes, the venom in the bees in Yosemite are different than the bee venom Kyle's allergic to. 

K. Dickman: Bees, like snakes, their venoms are different based on where they live, the prey that they eat, whatever else. My venom allergy most likely to yellow jackets. Cause when I was a kid, I wandered into a nest and I got hit with a bunch of different yellow jackets and my mom was with me and she threw me into this river and held me underwater. But when I came up I was, I was going into anaphylaxis. But my allergy was to those bees in that particular subspecies of bee, and not to the species of bee that bit me is what we think happened. 

Frick-Wright: So no anaphylaxis, no epinephrine. And then finally the helicopter showed up. 

(helicopter sound effects)

K. Dickman: I'm just like laying in a puddle of shit and looking straight up at the blue sky and a helicopter comes overhead. Things get really windy. They just grab a carabiner clip, clip it into the backboard and up you go.  I got like a sort of a nice scenic flight of lower Yosemite, which is a lovely place. 

Frick-Wright: Do you remember it? 

K. Dickman:Yeah. Oh yeah, I definitely remember it.  I remember craning my neck up and looking out and being like, Oh, I hope this ends soon. (laughs)

Frick-Wright: Five and a half hours after the bite, Kyle arrived at the hospital and got the first of what would eventually be 18 vials of antivenom. His Yosemite deal was over. Unfortunately, his hospital ordeal was just beginning. 

K. Dickman: My impression was that like venom plus antivenom equals all good. That's not actually how that works. 

Frick-Wright: Antivenom can neutralize venom, but sometimes not all of it. And the body still has to repair the damage it did, which takes time, especially when the venom has such a huge headstart. 

K. Dickman: The swelling gets so bad that your body ends up making -- they call them blebs. They're basically giant blisters and because there’s nowhere else for the fluid in my leg to go, it pops. It just expands into these big ugly blisters that like sort of covered my lower leg. 

Frick-Wright: Kyle's leg had also swollen into more than twice its normal size, which was like clamping his nerves in a vice. Even with morphine every two hours the pain was too severe for him to sleep. 

K. Dickman: In the places where there weren’t blisters, it felt like my nerves were getting squeezed between a rock and a hard place. Like all over the body. There's a better analogy but it's just skin and whatever else. I mean there's just nowhere else for them to go. 

Frick-Wright: The swelling got so bad that doctors worried he was developing something called compartment syndrome, which is when swelling cuts off circulation to your extremities. But the treatment for this problem is only slightly better than the problem itself. If a night nurse hadn't found a pulse in Kyle's foot proving that it was still getting circulation, surgeons would have cut long, deep incisions into Kyle’s legm flaying it open to relieve the pressure, but that wasn't even their biggest concern 

K. Dickman: By that point there was a bunch of really crazy stuff going on with my blood. Coagulopathy is what it's called. So basically it goes after the molecules in your system that allow you to clot, allows your blood to clot. A normal person has somewhere around 125,000 to 250,000 microliters of platelets in an ounce of their blood, something like that. Mine were at nine when they brought me in -- 9,000. Yeah. And you're at risk of spontaneous bleeding anywhere below 10,000. They were pretty worried about it. 

T. Dickman: At first he thought he was going to get out of there in a couple of days or a day or two. He didn't really seem to understand the severity. I remember mentioning it to his parents, and  they were like, he doesn't need to know yet. And I think, after a few days and, and finally getting some of those pretty bad results back from his blood work, he started to understand that it was going to be awhile. 

K. Dickman: So what they do is give me a dose of the antivenom and then take my blood levels to see how I was reacting to it, and the worst part for me was when they had just given me a dose of itm and they take my blood levels and Turin sent me a picture of my son.  (pauses)

Frick-Wright: You just saw him on your phone? 

K. Dickman: On my phone. (sighs)

T. Dickman: It was right around the time he'd started smiling and I took this series of photos of Bridger with just these huge grins and texted them to him. And it was that same morning he found out how his platelets had crashed again. 

K. Dickman: And that was like the moment, as soon as I saw that, I was like, okay, great, I'll go see Bridger soon. And my platelets just plummeted. They were way down low again. 

Frick-Wright: After the first dose of antivenom, Kyle's platelets had increased, bumping up to 80,000 or so, but then they measured them again after Kyle saw the picture. They'd come back down. 

K. Dickman: They were back down at 12. And I think that was the moment that I really realized. I was like, Holy shit. I'm a lot sicker than I've ever been before. 

Frick-Wright: Kyle’s someone who used to travel the world doing dangerous or risky things; he's been held up by soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; he's dodged crocodiles in Papua New Guinea. He'd even stepped on a fer-de-lance snake in Belize, but this was the first time he'd suffered any consequences. 

K. Dickman: There's so much randomness in the world that you just never know when something bad's going to come across and hits you sideways. I think that's a lot of what made me feel so vulnerable about this, is that I'm like a naive and mostly optimistic person, but I've gone through my life doing things, survived things that I probably shouldn't have survived. I;’ve kayaked Class 5 whitewater in the Congo, and I've done all these crazy first descents and like I fought fire for five years and I've sort of always been really drawn to these like adrenaline activities, and the thing that came closest to killing me was going for a wildflower hike. 

Frick-Wright: I mean, how do you make sense of that? What can you learn or do differently next time to keep these kinds of things from happening? It was four days before Kyle could move from a bed to a chair, another two before he could stand up. Two more before doctors released him out into a world that didn't look quite the same as it had before. In the woods, everything seemed to sliver; around every corner, danger. For the first time, the world was a scary place. 

K. Dickman: The same thing happens to everybody in their lives in so many different ways and it's not that they get bit by a rattlesnake or break their leg jumping into some canyon; it's that one day they wake up and their wife has cancer or whatever else that it is, and for me, that's what this moment was. It's a little depressing, but like I look ahead at my life and I know that there's a lot of joy out there, but I see more pain than I did before. 

Frick-Wright: In a diary Kyle kept while reporting the piece he did for Outside, he wrote, ‘I see this story as a look at risk. The unthinkable will happen to everybody. Risk is a snake in the grass, lurking, always there, just out of sight, for that unlucky day you step just a little off track. 

K. Dickman: And then the other thing is though, that's not a good reason to not go into the woods because that's true for every other part of your life too. You just don't get to live without bad shit happening to people that you love or yourself. I think that's like what I've learned from this. 

Frick-Wright: Kyle grew up with parents who took him outside and helped him push his limits. He became a competent risk tolerant person. Then a random encounter on a wildflower hike and the birth of his son took a lot of that away. 

K. Dickman: I think in general, I'm less willing to take risks than I was, but I'm not sure that has to do with the snake bite or if it has to do with Bridger. And I think it probably has to do with Bridger because I find it hard to believe that I'll ever say no to another wildflower hike because I was once bitten by a snake on one.

Frick-Wright: Last year, Kyle and Turin had a daughter, Tali. She and Bridger won’t ever know the person Kyle was before he got bit, just like we can't know who our parents were before we came along. Kyle won't be able to protect his kids from the kind of bad luck he had on that bridge. Nothing can -- all you can do is raise them to be ready for anything and hopefully meet them in Yosemite when the wildflowers are blooming 

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OUTRO

Frick-Wright: This piece was written and produced by me, Peter Frick-Wright. Editing and sound design by Robbie Carver. It was based heavily on Kyle Dickman’s story, “A Rattle with Death in Yosemite” from June of last year. Part two of the story  is about a guy who has been bit hundreds of times by the most deadly snakes in the world and the people that are studying him to improve antivenom treatments. That'll be out in two weeks. 

This episode was brought to you by Bob's Red Mill. Go to Bobsredmill.com/outside for a chance to win prizes from Bob's and Outside. This episode of the Science of Survival is supported by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science, technology, economic performance, and snake bites more at sloan.org. 

The outside podcast is a production of Outside Magazine and PRX. We'll be back next week to launch a new series and then back the week after that with more about snakes.

The Outside Podcast

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.