Lorraine Jonsson's Miraculous Survival 

She was given just 5 percent chance of living

Thursday, Feb 24 2011

Even as the poison made its way up her leg, into her heart and brain, ripping through cells along the way, Lorraine Jonsson did not hate the snake that bit her. "This is horrible," she thought. "This is not good. This could be it." Then, a curiosity satisfied: "So, this is how I'm going to die."

 She had been merrily hiking in Franklin Canyon Park. She didn't see it until it was too late. Coiled, a foot and a half from the trail. She heard it rattle. It sprang at her, fanged her twice in the left lower leg, then slithered back into the brush, disappearing. It was a beautiful spring day. It could happen to anyone.

A quarter of all snakebites are so-called "dry bites," in which no venom is injected by the creature's hypodermic-like teeth. This wasn't one of those. A burning pain radiated up Jonsson's left side. The snake, a rattlesnake, was equipped with both a hemotoxin and a neurotoxin, doctors would later discover. These toxins — the digestive sort that break up muscles and tissues and otherwise turn a mouse into mouse soup — ruptured her red blood cells and jammed up her nerve signals.

click to flip through (2) PHOTO BY STAR FOREMAN - Lorraine Jonsson: Once bit, not shy

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As paralysis set in, she felt her body being taken over by something not her own. Her eyesight warped. She couldn't move her legs. "Help me," she squeaked, collapsing in the middle of the trail.

How she got to the hospital is a ridiculous story of chance encounters and nonworking cell phones. A couple of hikers chanced by. They trundled her to their car, got lost looking for a hospital, passed another hiker, a doctor, who advised them to call an ambulance — they could never make it to the hospital in time. But call how? Ordinary cell phones don't work on mountains. More frantic driving. More wrong turns. Which led them to a park ranger. Who called the paramedics. Who brought her to Cedars-Sinai.

Once there, things got worse. In 30 years, the head of the intensive care unit had never seen such a bite. Doctors gave Jonsson a 5 percent chance of survival. Puffed up to three times her normal size — so big the hospital staff worried her skin might crack — she was suffocating. Her airway swelled so much that her tongue couldn't fit in her mouth. It hung out grotesquely.

Of the 278 people who were bitten by poisonous snakes in California last year and subsequently called the state's poison control hotline, 30 were in Los Angeles. Jonsson's case stands out to poison control chief Stuart Heard for the "sheer volume" of antivenom it required. Normally, when people get bitten, they receive 40 or so 250-milliliter vials of antivenom.

Jonsson needed 116 of them. "They were calling zoos and veterinarians for the stuff," she recalled later.

Various horrific scenarios were discussed: Would they have to amputate her leg? Would her kidneys fail? Would dialysis work? Would her family like to call a priest for last rites?

Hooked up to myriad snakelike tubes and IV lines, she had terrifying nightmares. She can't recall what they were about, but she remembers she had an overwhelming feeling of fear. Even the rattle of the ventilator sounded eerily like a snake with its "ch-ch-ch-ch-chhhhhhhssssss" hiss.

She spent two weeks in ICU. It was touch-and-go for a while, but miraculously, she made a turn for the better.

Now, months later, she would like to cross paths with the rattler again. Not to kill it or exact revenge but rather to know it.

"He was a thick-bodied snake. Gray, brown muddy colors with no strong visible pattern," she says, sitting cross-legged in a big armchair in her midcentury modern home. From her living room, Jonsson has a 180-degree view of the mountains. Safely ensconced behind the glass windows, it feels sort of like an aquarium. Who's viewing whom — her or nature — you're not quite certain.

With the help of herpetologists, she narrowed the culprit down to a Mojave green or a Southern Pacific rattlesnake. Or perhaps it was a hybrid of the two.

If the moral of the story is "Never hike alone," Jonsson is not exactly one to learn her lesson. She recently returned to the scene of the crime, alone, to track down the ranger who saved her and persuade him to either capture the snake or shut the trail down. 

As it often goes with people who survive desperate situations, it comes down to attitude. She remembers feeling regret and sadness at first: "This is how Lorraine died. By the side of the trail, alone."

Then, suddenly, a click. "No," she said. "I am not going to die. I have to get to the road and find help." She managed to crawl out just enough for the hikers to see her.

The experience has been a gift, she insists. She had the bad luck to get bitten but the tremendous good luck to have lived. Unlike Spider-Man's Peter Parker, she did not gain superpowers or snake powers or the ability to psychically communicate with snakes. (Though oddly, she hasn't needed her asthma inhaler since the bite.) The only sense that did increase tenfold was her sense of irony. She's become much more cautious, because how messed up would it be to have survived all this only to be hit by a car?

That, and her sense of gratitude. She rattles off the names of her doctors and expresses her undying love for each of them: internist Dr. Rafael Lefkowitz, the ER docs, the pharmacist.

Jonsson, who is in her 50s, works as an architectural designer, but she has developed a scientist's keen interest in venomous reptiles. And perhaps the evangelist's need to tell her tale: Her application to be on Discovery TV show I Shouldn't Be Alive is pending.

In terms of public safety, the National Parks Service didn't move terribly fast. Snake fences eventually were erected, but NPS never did shake out the scaly offender. The woods are big, and snakes are small. He was long gone.

"By the way, none of the things that they tell you to do would have helped. 'Don't move. Stay on the trail.' If I'd done that, I'd be dead," Jonsson says.

These days, the warming weather and the approach of spring snake season have put her in a philosophical mood.

"I don't have any bad feelings toward him. We ran into each other at the wrong place at the wrong time." They simply shared a moment. "I feel in some way kind of close to that snake because of the experience he brought me," she muses. "Though I may not feel so generous if I didn't have a leg."

Reach the writer at galimurung@laweekly.com

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