ECU snake expert Sean Bush, left, shares techniques for handling a venomous snake with fourth-year medical student Heather Anderson.  (Photography by Cliff Hollis)
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Editor's Note: Dr. Bush was highlighted on UNC-TV's "NC Now" Jan. 22 in a segment titled "The Snake Doctor." Click  here to view "The Snake Doctor."


Snake expert arrives to improve care of snakebite victims

By Doug Boyd '99

Sim Asher ’11 was riding in the back of a rescue squad to Vidant Medical Center, his leg swelling by the second from a copperhead snakebite, when one of the emergency medical technicians said something that got his attention.

“She said, ‘Maybe you’ll meet Dr. Venom,’” Asher said in early September, his ankle still discolored and two faint puncture marks still visible. “I was like, ‘Do I want to meet Dr. Venom?’ It sounds like something that dropped out of a Spiderman movie.”

But not only did Asher meet Dr. Venom, he became one of his patients.

Dr. Venom, or internationally known snake expert Dr. Sean Bush, who’s been featured on the television show Venom ER, has joined the faculty of the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University.

Bush comes to ECU as a physician and professor of emergency medicine. He started work July 1 after leaving Loma Linda University in California, where he was a professor and director of the envenomation medicine fellowship. He sees patients in the emergency department at Vidant Medical Center.

“I came to ECU in search of copperheads and greener pastures,” Bush said. “Greenville has all the elements my family and I were looking for in a community. The Brody School of Medicine feels like a place where I can thrive as a professor of emergency medicine. I have already seen snakebite patients here (10 as of mid-October), and if anyone is bitten in eastern North Carolina, I hope to contribute to their care.”

Bush has had a lifelong interest in reptiles and venomous creatures. He has written more than 50 publications on the treatment of bites and stings and has lectured on the local, national and international level. He has been featured in dozens of television documentaries on several cable networks including Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic Television and PBS. Among other recognitions, he was an expert advisor on snakebite medicine to the White House Medical Unit from 2001–2009.


From fire ants to black widows

At ECU, Bush plans to study copperhead snakes and their venom as well as other poisonous stinging and biting creatures, from fire ants to wasps to black widow spiders.

“Anything that bites, stings or has venom, I’m interested in that,” he said.

Having an internationally known expert on the Brody faculty is a plus, said fourth-year medical student Heather Anderson. She was on an emergency medicine rotation when a snakebite victim arrived, and she got to see Bush work.

“It was really interesting to see just his knowledge on the subject, and you could tell his passion not only for helping people but educating students and families and patients on copperheads and what to do with a snakebite,” Anderson said. “So it gave us an opportunity to not only learn more about recognizing a copperhead but also the management and treatment and types of labs you would look for and things like that.”

Bush said he’s been happy since arriving from California.

“The caliber of the student here is top-notch,” he said. “I’m proud to wear the purple and gold, and we’re just all caught up in the spirit of the city and the football games.
It’s awesome.”

He motioned to a copperhead he was holding on a hook. “Plus, you find this kind of stuff in your yard,” he said.

With that being the case, locals are fortunate to have the expertise and facilities at ECU and Vidant, he said.

“Here, you have everything you need for snakebite,” Bush said. “You have a lot of people in interdisciplinary services that are interested in snakebites. The surgeons are interested, the toxicologists are interested. I’m an emergency physician, and I’m interested. Pediatrics, pediatricians are interested.

"You have a lot of really talented folks studying this and giving the best care to the patients here.”

Bush’s arrival at ECU is noteworthy, school officials said.

“He is of the highest caliber and brings with him a track record of significant academic and clinical accomplishments that will contribute to our programs in outstanding ways,” said Dr. Theodore Delbridge, chair of the Department of Medicine at Brody. “We look forward tohis expertise when it comes to treating the multitude of bites and stings we regularly see in the emergency department.”

Bush has bachelor’s and medical degrees from Texas A&M University and completed residency training in emergency medicine at Loma Linda University Medical Center. He has
30 publications in peer-reviewed journals in addition to his other academic writings.

He is board-certified in emergency medicine and is a fellow of the American College of Emergency Physicians.

N.C. crawling with copperheads

Copperheads are the most common of six species of venomous snakes in North Carolina. In 2009, the state led the nation in copperhead bites with 228, according to the Carolinas Poison Center. Their bites are typically not fatal for humans, though they can kill small animals and do require immediate medical attention.

Bush said snakes aren’t out to get people.

“They’re not trying to eat a person,”he said. “A snake is trying to get away. A snake is one inch, and you’re probably 70 inches. If you saw something 70 times taller than you, you’d want to get away, too.”

Nevertheless, it’s not uncommon for people to say they hate snakes and try to kill any snake they see.

“That, to me, it’s absurd. It’s uninformed. It’s a little small-minded,” Bush said. “Snakes deserve to live, too. I personally love snakes.”

Snakes can also be beneficial. They eat rats and mice, and some eat more dangerous rivals.

“A king snake in your yard means a rattlesnake will go out of your yard,” Bush said of the nonpoisonous constricting snake that’s immune to the venom of the viper it sometimes dines on.

Video by Cliff Hollis

The need to keep cool

Like many victims of a copperhead bite, Asher didn’t know he was getting too close to one.

He was in his parents’ driveway putting a bag in his car the night of Aug. 27 when he felt a sharp, sudden pain and knew right away a snake had bitten his ankle. He jumped back and tried to stay calm. An ambulance was there within minutes.

He received an IV on the way to the hospital and another when he arrived. It was a busy night, so he waited on a gurney in the hallway. Bush was soon at his side.

“His energy was very positive,” Asher said. “It really reassured me.”

Bush treated him with CroFab, the antivenom for pit viper bites. “He was pretty calm, but his mom was quite concerned,” Bush said. “He tolerated the infusion really well, and he was just admitted overnight and got to go home the next day. No complications. He did really well.”

Asher dealt with the bite the best way he knew how. “For the seriousness of it, I was laughing a bit,” he said. “At that point, all I wanted was a beer. I’m not going to lie about it.”

Though Bush has never been bitten by a poisonous snake, his son was bitten by a rattlesnake when he was 2 years old. He fully recovered, but not without tense moments, such as when his father met the helicopter transporting him and saw the terror in his son’s eyes.

“I was mortified,” Bush said, because of the danger of the Southern Pacific rattlesnake and because the victim was his son. “And then when the door opened, I saw it in his face. He was very frightened. Maybe he was mirroring my face, and I was mirroring his face. I was like, ‘Dude, I got to pull it together and keep my cool. Otherwise, he’ll be terrified.’ And I didn’t want that.”

If anyone wants to avoid seeing him in the emergency department, Bush has some simple advice.

“The best thing to do is leave wildlife alone,” he said. “Take pictures of it.”