FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Editor's Note: The video above was published in January 2022 covering a different story.
It was the snakebite story shared around the globe.
At least that’s how it felt to Rachel Myrick, who was bitten by a poisonous snake more than 4.5 years ago in the foyer of a Spotsylvania County restaurant. The “crazy story,” as she called it, was broadcast by media and digital outlets across the world.
At the time, it was one of the most viewed posts on all of Facebook.
But few people know the horror Myrick has endured in the wake of the copperhead encounter, said her fiancé, Michael Clem. He was with her on Sept. 12, 2017, when a snake about 8 inches long bit her twice on the toes and once on the side of her left foot as she entered LongHorn Steakhouse at Southpoint II in Massaponax.
Either the bites or the antivenin given to treat them — or perhaps the combination — threw Myrick into a disorder known as complex regional pain syndrome. The condition is severely disabling and causes pain that’s often much greater than the initial injury, according to the Stanford Medicine website.
For 40-year-old Myrick, every aspect of life has changed. The once on-the-go, successful real estate agent, runner and “RoboMom,” as Clem called her, spends most of her days in bed or a wheelchair. She can walk with crutches, maybe an hour a day until pain and exhaustion overwhelm her.
The slightest brush against her skin, even from a breeze, can be debilitating.
“You feel like your skin is sunburned, then you take sand or shards of glass, depending on how bad my moment is, and you just rub it into the top,” she said. “I’m in the worst pain of my entire life, times 10.”
The website for the Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome Association, which provides support and education, details the condition that many refer to as the “suicide disease.”
“I try not to use that term,” said Jim Broatch, executive vice president and director of the association, based in Connecticut.
But the reality is the McGill Pain Index rates it as the most painful chronic pain condition — worse than non-terminal cancer, childbirth and amputation of a toe or finger, he said.
“We’re talking about relentless pain, 24/7,” Broatch said. “Some people do die by suicide and others just gut it out every day. It’s not something you’d wish on your worst enemy.”
‘CAN’T DO ANYTHING’
Adding to the pain for Myrick and her longtime partner Clem, who live in Spotsylvania, are financial worries. Together, they were making about $300,000 a year before the snakebite, but she no longer can work and he’s afraid to leave her for too long because she needs help with almost every aspect of daily life.
That’s a bitter pill to swallow for someone who’s “incredibly uncomfortable with being a burden,” Myrick said. She regularly describes the time in her life before she “got bit,” when as a single mother of two, she coached her daughter’s cheerleading squad and did her own cheering for her son at baseball games.
When the Spotsylvania Parks & Recreation Department decided to honor a football or cheerleading coach who best exemplified the spirit of the game, sportsmanship and quality instruction, Myrick received the inaugural award in 2015, said Brian Barnes, recreation manager.
“She was dedicated, enthusiastic and expressed an unwavering positive attitude that was infectious,” he said in an email.
That was in addition to Myrick’s work schedule, which often covered six or seven days a week, and running races. Once, she flew to Colorado for a 10K run and to visit a relative. She did the race — a mile above sea level, and didn’t have her best time — but then she hiked in the Rocky Mountains the next day and came home.
“That was my speed then, it was constant. It was great,” she said. “I would have had it no other way. You go from that person to someone who can’t take care of her own needs. You can’t do anything.”
There have been frustrations with getting insurance approval for treatments, side effects from the powerful painkillers she was prescribed and finally, the stress inherent with a legal battle. She decided to sue LongHorn’s owner, Rare Hospitality International, for $25 million in damages. Rare Hospitality’s parent company is Darden Restaurants, which operates more than 1,800 locations nationwide.
Initially, Myrick wasn’t interested in a lawsuit — even though people around her, from those who took care of her during the six days she spent in the hospital after the snakebite to friends and co-workers — suggested she sue.
“I didn’t feel like I was wronged,” she said during a recent interview. “I didn’t have a bit of animosity toward anyone, but maybe the snake, he wasn’t really my friend.”
She considered the incident “just the wild and crazy circumstances of life,” she said.
But when her story got such widespread circulation, people began to post about other snake sightings, both at the restaurant and in the general area, Myrick and Clem said. He hired a private investigator to supplement what her attorney’s investigation found, but the social media claims haven’t been verified.
At this point, the case is under demurrer, meaning that even if the allegations are true, they are not sufficient to establish a valid cause of action. Next month, a judge in Spotsylvania County Civil Court will determine if the case will proceed.
COMPLEX LEGAL CASE
The case is complicated and complex, just like the disease from which Myrick suffers. Documents filed by Myrick’s attorney in Spotsylvania Circuit Court allege the restaurant and other defendants didn’t address a potential snake problem because of the habitat, including a nearby retention pond and rocky boulders around the front of the building.
Lawyers for the restaurant argued that even if Myrick could prove the “snake in question” had wandered into LongHorn — and not been brought in, perhaps, by another patron — the business wasn’t liable, according to documents filed with the case.
“The Supreme Court of Virginia has held there can be no claims against a landowner for the trespass of wild animals,” according to Rare Hospitality’s filings. The defendants weren’t aware “of a single Virginia case where a court has imposed liability against a landowner for harm caused by a wild animal” that was not in the person’s possession.
At one point, the case entered the realm of the Eastern District of Virginia and Judge M. Hannah Lauck cited a “glimmer of hope” for Myrick. The judge said the intricacies of the doctrine pertaining to wild animals “are far from settled and do not categorically bar Myrick’s claims.”
However, Lauck ruled the federal court had no jurisdiction and sent it back to the county court.
PAIN PILLS AND BILLS
Clem and Myrick spent almost three hours during an interview trying to describe the decline of her health and the timeline of procedures she’s tried. He estimates she’s seen about 100 doctors, specialists and neurosurgeons during more than 250 appointments. Their medical bills have topped $1 million, she said, and that doesn’t include co-pays for prescriptions and over-the-counter treatments.
While CRPS often creates incredible pain in the affected limb or joint, it also can spread to other parts of the body. Myrick has it in both legs and feet, arms and hands, and shoulders.
Her left leg is by far the worst limb because that’s where she was bitten. She wears a slipper that’s three times larger on the affected foot because she can’t tolerate anything rubbing against her skin. Likewise, she usually wears her hair short or up off her shoulders because she’s got another hot spot on her back that can’t take contact.
“My entire life is dictated by this disease,” she said.
She’s tried four sympathetic nerve blocks in which numbing medicine is injected to interrupt the pain signals sent to the brain. None worked. She’s had two spinal cord stimulators implanted with the hopes they will send low levels of electricity to the affected area to relieve pain.
She hasn’t felt much pain relief, but the devices have improved the blood flow in her feet, and she’s grateful for that. However, the surgeries, which are supposed to be done on an outpatient basis, caused her pain to flare and she was hospitalized for several weeks.
Likewise, the heavy-duty painkillers she was prescribed, including morphine and Dilaudid, as well as Gabapentin to treat nerve pain, left her “numb and underwater,” she said. Clem gave an example of their impact.
“She couldn’t say the word cucumber,” he said.
“I could hold it and look at it, but my word recall was awful,” Myrick said. “I couldn’t complete sentences.”
Because the pain pills weren’t offering much relief — and caused side effects including gastrointestinal problems — Myrick decided to wean herself off the medicine. She wants to try two other treatments, including low-dose infusions of ketamine, and must be off the pain pills to do them.
If they don’t work, she’s not sure what options remain. If they work and remain available — because fewer clinics nationwide offer the infusions — she and Clem will have to pay up to $15,000 out of pocket for each treatment. And she may need several a year.
Rare Hospitality’s lawyer offered a $100,000 settlement, Clem said, which they did not accept because they believe her long-term care will exceed that amount.
“We want treatments for her and we can’t afford them,” Clem said. “I’m doing everything I can to survive but it’s not going to be too long before we’re in trouble.”
Rachel Myrick’s mother has created a GoFundMe account for her. Search for: Gaining independence, finding purpose through pain.