“Surreal. Unimaginable,” said Scott Vuncannon, attempting to describe the ordeal he went through last summer. A former Boy Scout, 58-year-old Scott was more than prepared when he and his dog, Boone, set out on the Ellicott Rock Trail in the Nantahala National Forest on a sunny day last August. But even the most experienced hiker cannot prepare for everything.
Thanks to his wife’s intuition, Herculean efforts by first responders and paramedics, and swift actions taken by MAMA (Mountain Area Medical Airlift) and Mission Hospital, Scott overcame seemingly insurmountable odds and survived a highly venomous rattlesnake attack.
The strike occurred just as Scott neared the turnaround point on the path in sight of the Chattooga River, about four miles from the trailhead. As he stepped into a clearing, Scott saw the snake out of the corner of his eye, and without a sound, it struck him in the left calf. More concerned than panicked, he bent down and tied a bandana around his leg above the bite to help control the bleeding.
“By the time I did that and stood back up, I could actually taste the poison in the back of my throat,” said Scott, describing the metallic taste along with a numbing feeling. At this point, only about five minutes after the attack, sweat was pouring from his face and his vision was starting to blur. Scott took out his phone, which said “1 pm” and “No Service.”
Scott knew to tell his wife where he was going and how long he planned to be gone. And though he’d never hiked this specific trail, he had hiked other trails in the area. But somehow his wife, Nan, knew long before their scheduled 4 pm meet-up time that something was off. Around 2 pm, she started texting him, with no response.
In the meantime, Scott had managed to make it what he thought was a quarter-mile back toward the trailhead before his body gave out. He pulled himself up against the mountain with his feet below his heart and his dog by his side. “My leg was hurting, but my gut was just on fire. It felt like someone was stabbing me with a butcher knife,” he said. He went unconscious at least four times that he can recall.
A Wife’s Intuition
After arriving at their Highlands home and not seeing Scott’s truck, Nan immediately drove to the trailhead and walked in a bit, calling for him. Nothing. Instead of going home to wait, she pulled into the Highland Hiker, a local outdoors store. “Honestly I didn’t think so much as I felt directed to do things,” she said. Her stop at the Highland Hiker led two women working there to put the rescue in action, alerting Highlands Fire & Rescue (HF&R) Chief Ryan Gearhart of the situation.
During this time, Scott started to give in, and around 5:30 pm, he made a goodbye video to his wife and kids. His throat was so swollen, it was difficult to even speak. Boone curled up with Scott, and they lay there shivering. “He never got water or anything,” Scott said of his four-legged companion. “He just stayed there with me the whole time.”
At 7:30 pm, Scott’s prayers were finally answered when HF&R captain Eric Pierson found him on the trail. HF&R worked tirelessly with the Glenville-Cashiers rescue team and paramedics to get him out. It took 23 rescue workers to extract him. They used five doses of epinephrine, cut trees off the trail, grappled with stairs, and deployed an ATV and a stretcher to get him to the ambulance where MAMA team Nick Cook and Lois Hancock were waiting to take him to the helicopter.
“These guys did so much to get him out of there,” Hancock said of the rescue workers. “It took hours.” On a bumpy forest road, they had to pull off to intubate him, but were able to do so and get him to the hospital by 12:59 am. “Our part in that basically was a fast ride,” said Hancock. “It would’ve been an hour-and-a-half minimum from where they were, probably, driving.”
Out of the Woods
“I cannot recall a person with worse toxicity from his envenomation,” said Jonas Karlsson, MD, the trauma surgeon who was present upon Scott’s arrival. “It was severe to say the least.”
Dr. Karlsson saw that if Scott didn’t improve, he could potentially lose his life. Fortunately, Scott responded to the course of antivenom rather quickly. Dr. Karlsson breathed his first sigh of relief about 24 hours into treatment. “It’s easy to take care of patients because the system is in place. Just by doing kind of what you’re doing every day, people can have profound improvement in otherwise life-threatening conditions,” said Dr. Karlsson.
Scott said, “It’s funny because when I did come to finally, my wife and daughter said the first thing I asked was, ‘Am I out of the woods yet?’ and they said, ‘Yeah, you’re out of the woods.’ And the doctor said, ‘Well, he’s not really out of the woods yet, but he’s physically out of the woods.’”
“The people at Mission were just unbelievable,” said Scott. “They just made it so much easier to recover.”
Dr. Karlsson actually passed the Vuncannons in the hallway a few months later. “I think he [Scott] was going back to visit the ICU nurses,” the doctor recalled. Dr. Karlsson couldn’t emphasize enough how important it is for nurses to see these success stories. “One of the aspects of being a nurse in the ICU is that you see folks when they’re at their worst, and many of them don’t do well…so to know that he was going back to see them was very heartwarming for me.”
“All the great folks that we met offered such unexpected kindness,” said Nan. “It has made me try to be a better person and notice more of what’s going on around me, and remember to look up even if all I can offer is a knowing glance or soft smile.”
Jonas Karlsson, MD, is a trauma surgeon with Mission Trauma Services.
Lois Hancock is a registered nurse/flight nurse with Mission’s Mountain Area Medical Airlift.
Nick Cook is a flight paramedic with Mission’s Mountain Area Medical Airlift.