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Luis Bermudez hardly expected the experience of a lifetime when he visited the newly opened Wal-Mart in West Kendall on February 20. A long-time collector of exotic fruit trees, Bermudez made a beeline for the garden shop while a friend went hunting for a flashlight. "I'm always looking for new trees or plants wherever I go," says the 50-year-old native of Cuba, who grows lychees and avocados, 40 different varieties of mangoes, and thousands of coconut palms on his seven acres in the Redlands. "I just thought I would look around and see if they had any interesting plants or flowers."
In the garden department of the vast discount store at 15885 N. Kendall Dr. - one of two Dade Wal-Marts - Bermudez eyed a four-foot potted tree. Almost in passing, he recalls, he reached out to touch the leaves with his left hand. He felt a sudden pain on his wrist, as if he had been burned by a lighted cigarette. "I threw out my right hand to protect myself and I stepped back, and that's when I noticed my left wrist was bleeding," says Bermudez. Then he saw a snake coiled on the floor, where it had apparently landed after Bermudez flung it with his flailing arms. "It was a big one, and it was ready to attack again."
It was a dusky pygmy rattlesnake.
Several employees, including the store manager, responded to Bermudez's calls for help. They tied a rope tourniquet around his arm, calmed him, and sat him down on a nearby bench. One of the employees trapped the eighteen-inch snake in a box, which was taken to Kendall's Baptist Hospital by rescue personnel along with Bermudez, in case doctors needed to confirm the identity of the venom involved. Although his arm swelled from wrist to elbow to twice its normal size, doctors did not give Bermudez an antidote, deeming it better to let his body fight the poison on its own. (While it can cause extreme discomfort and tissue damage, the venom from dusky pygmy rattlers is rarely fatal to humans. The snakes, which average 15 to 22 inches in length when adult, range across the southeastern states.)
Bermudez spent two days in the hospital under observation. After another week, the swelling had dissipated, but the pain in his arm - plus severe headaches, and insomnia caused by reptilian nightmares - has persisted. Bermudez has seen doctors about the lingering effects of the snake bite, and he is scheduled for further tests. "I just don't feel right," he complains. "I'm completely nervous and stressed out."
For its part, Wal-Mart's insurance agency, National Union Fire Insurance Company, has offered to pay Bermudez's $2100 hospital bill, plus an additional $5000 for mental anguish. Bermudez and his attorney, William Sullivan, don't think much of the dollar figure, and are preparing a lawsuit against the department store chain. "Any jury is going to think the amount they have offered is an insult," scoffs Sullivan. "I can't think of any event more damaging to a person's psyche, not to mention any continuing medical problems he might have. They should be checking these plants thoroughly, because I don't think it's too much too ask to be able to go to a Wal-Mart without feeling like you're going to be attacked by a poisonous snake."
Wal-Mart spokesmen and the manager of the Kendall Drive store say they cannot comment about how the snake found its way into the garden shop, which, with the exception of a chain-link fence, is open to the outdoors on one side. Nor will they say whether any precautions are being taken to ensure repeat incidents don't occur.
Lest Bermudez's tale threaten to take on the apocryphal quality of urban mythology, it should be pointed out that this is not the first time a shopper has been bitten by a pygmy rattler. In a Wal-Mart. Last October 57-year-old Berrian McGlamory was struck on the right forearm by one of the rattlers as he looked at a plant in a Wal-Mart in Sunrise. McGlamory says the company has paid his $100,000-plus medical bills, much of which resulted after he experienced an allergic reaction to antivenin. In a three-day span in August 1987, two other people were bitten by pygmy rattlesnakes in Wal-Marts, one in North Fort Myers, the other in the Panhandle town of Fort Walton Beach. After the 1987 incidents, Wal-Mart corporate officials ordered garden centers to take extra precautions to ensure snakes stayed out of plants.
According to renowned snake expert Bill Haast, the presence of a rattler in a plant department is not unusual, although more frequently the snakes found in garden shops are of the nonpoisonous variety. Nurseries that supply plants to stores such as Wal-Mart often are situated in wooded areas where snakes thrive. "When they gather up these plants to bring them in to the stores, the snakes come with them in the burlap bags they put around the roots, or in the plants themselves," explains Haast from the Miami Serpentarium, now located on the Gulf Coast in Punta Gorda. "Of course, the animals are scared, and they hide until the situation calms down, which usually isn't until they get in the store. Then they come out. We've even heard of snakes getting here from South and Central America that way.