The Mozambique Spitting Cobra is considered one of the most highly venomous snakes in the world – which is why rapid treatment of bites is crucial. Unfortunately, most snake bites take place in wilderness areas, making it difficult to access care. This is what happened to the Barbeau family when little Hailey was bitten in November 2022 – and why the family continues to be grateful for the response provided by Mediclinic Nelspruit.

Pink Barbeau was at work, as was his wife Melanie, when he received the phone call every parent dreads. “Our helper, Nomfundo, told me that she had seen a snake in our yard. She had quickly scooped up Hailey to protect her,” Pink recalls. “Because she wasn’t sure if Hailey hadn’t been bitten, I asked her to take off her clothes to check for bite marks.”

And there they were: two small red lines on Hailey’s shoulder. “My guess was that the snake had given a warning bite. Although we can’t be sure what happened, we think that Hailey was sitting outside eating a snack when she saw the snake. She’s the kind of kid who loves creatures and doesn’t fear them at all – even now, she’ll pick up any insect or reptile. She probably offered the snake some of her snack and that aggravated it, especially since the sight of it had set off the dogs’ barking.”

A little girl in danger

Chris Hobkirk of Lowveld Venom Suppliers informs that the Mozambique spitting cobra “has a horribly destructive cytotoxic venom. This causes a painful progression of swelling and, eventually, the death of tissue.” It’s important to administer anti-venom within the first four hours after a bite to prevent this, Chris adds.

This was part of the problem: The Barbeau’s hometown of Hazyview didn’t have the requisite medical supplies. Moreover, while Hailey and Nomfundo were home, Pink was in Nelspruit. He immediately phoned Melanie and his mother, telling them to get help for Hailey. He met up with his family at the Big Five garage in Kiepersol, where Hailey was transferred to an ambulance, then sped on to Mediclinic Nelspruit.

A race against time

Until now, Hailey’s greatest source of discomfort was the strange fuss everyone was making over her. But by the time she reached the hospital, the wound site had become extremely swollen. Her arm started turning black, and she was in great pain. The problem now was that it wasn’t clear whether the bite was a dry one, or if antivenom should be administered to such a young child, given that some people have a bad reaction to the substance. Eventually, the antivenom was administered under Chris’s guidance but, half an hour later, Hailey had gone into anaphylactic shock.

Although the Barbeaus were assured that this was a normal reaction, they were enormously concerned. A solution was found when Pink contacted a snakebite expert, who advised that Hailey be given medication to help her settle – and, two hours later, she was stable. The ordeal was not yet over, however: infection set into the wound site when Hailey was recovering in High Care, and she had to spend a further day being monitored in the paediatric ward before she could go home. Even now, her recovery was not complete: an itchy, sore rash – a symptom of serum sickness – covered her entire body, leaving her in acute discomfort for a week. Nonetheless, she was spared the need for surgery to remove necrotic (dead) tissue, a fallout for many snakebite victims.

Pink is pleased to say that, one year on, his daughter is back on track – “mad as a hatter”. “Treating a snakebite is notoriously difficult, as its difficult to gauge whether or not to give antivenom, and how much. We’re very grateful for the care Hailey received at Mediclinic Nelspruit, and the doctor’s openness to finding the best way to treat her.”

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