I nearly died after a viper attacked me at a luxurious yoga retreat

Ten days into a holiday she had chosen for its promise of relaxation, Sam West was in a zen, life-is-wonderful state of mind as she made her way through the lush gardens of a five-star hotel in Cyprus to join a session of gong meditation.

Sam, who owns a hair salon in Telford, Shropshire, was a seasoned traveller and had been all over the world — ‘to places you’d consider much more dangerous,’ she says — but to celebrate her 40th birthday she had opted for a luxury resort where she could join hill-top yoga and meditation classes, while her daughter Addison, eight, had fun in the kids’ club.

She recalls her wife Kate standing on a balcony, waving, as she approached the meditation platform, where there was a glorious view over the Mediterranean. 

She was looking forward to the gong meditation, which promotes healing. The sound of the gong apparently soothes the chakras, the energy points in the body that govern emotional and physical wellbeing.

She was a little late (‘I’d thought the session started at 5.30pm, but actually it was 5pm’), so the other participants were already on the floor, lying on their yoga mats.

Sam West in a wheelchair and her leg in a surgical stocking following her life-threatening encounter with a venomous snake in Cyprus

Sam West in a wheelchair and her leg in a surgical stocking following her life-threatening encounter with a venomous snake in Cyprus

As she hurried over in flip flops, sports shorts and a ‘take-it-easy flowery top’ she was aware of movement in the long grass under her feet. Then, she says, ‘everything changed in an instant’.

A venomous snake ‘flew’ at her and, before she could fully comprehend what was happening, sunk its fangs into her left ankle.

‘I tried to leap up the steps on to the platform. The snake was still attached to me, hanging from my ankle,’ she says. ‘I managed to kick it off… I think I took one step then fell down. Kate saw me go down but obviously couldn’t see the snake. She thought I’d gone over on my ankle or something.’

Sam’s immediate reaction — before the panic, and the poison, really took hold — was peculiarly British. ‘The others were all on their mats. I said, ‘I’m really sorry to disturb you but I’ve been bitten by a snake.’ Then — I’m not sure why; I must have thought the snake would come back and we could scare it off — I told one of them to hit the gong. So they whacked it.

‘But even at this point, although I was quite calm, I was aware of pain. The bite had been this sharp, sudden pain, but then the burning started. It was as if someone had lit a fire and was holding my leg over it. I was aware that Kate had arrived with my daughter. I remember saying, ‘Get her away. Don’t let her see this.’

Even now Sam is shocked at the unlikeliness of it all. As she puts it, ‘You might worry about getting bitten by a snake if you are trekking through the jungle; you really don’t if you are on a meditation holiday.’

Sam's leg turned purple with horrifying bruising from the effects of the venom

Sam’s leg turned purple with horrifying bruising from the effects of the venom 

Surgical lines show where the snake's fangs sunk into Sam's ankle as she jumped away from it

Surgical lines show where the snake’s fangs sunk into Sam’s ankle as she jumped away from it

A fellow holiday-maker took Addison off for an ice-cream while medical help was summoned. Hotel staff rushed to the scene, transporting Sam to the main building in a buggy. The holiday had been booked through the travel company TUI and its representative also came to help.

‘There was a lot of blood,’ Sam says. ‘It sort of spurted everywhere at first, then stopped, which I now know it does when venom moves through the bloodstream.’

She has since been told that if she had not received medical attention so quickly, she might not have been here to tell the tale.

Quite how serious the situation was became clear as doctors crowded round in the emergency room. ‘They kept asking if the snake was black — those ones are not venomous. I said, ‘No, no, it was beige’. It was obvious that it was venomous because my leg was swelling up so fast,’ she says.

‘At the point they realised what snake it was, everyone was running up and down the corridors. Even though I couldn’t understand the language, you could see the panic on their faces.’

Addison, meanwhile, had been brought to the hospital and was so upset by the commotion she started to vomit. ‘She was in an absolute panic, bless her,’ says Sam.

‘They let her briefly come in and see me, but afterwards, she had to sit in the corridor on her own when Kate was coming in to see me. It was a nightmare.’

Sam would spend the next four days in intensive care with medical teams desperately working to save her life as the venom spread up her leg.

‘ICU was such a scary place. I was on oxygen for the first 24 hours and I couldn’t see — I don’t know whether that was the poison or the panic.

‘But gradually I was aware of things going on around me — other people passing, their families crying,’ she says. ‘ICU is a scary place anyway, but when you have an eight-year-old daughter… She’s only little. It was an awful thing for her to have to deal with.’

Six weeks later, at home in Shropshire, Sam knows she has been extraordinarily lucky. But she is still confined to a wheelchair and dependent on painkillers to get through the day, and it will be some time before she is back on her feet.

She has staff running her hairdressing business, ‘but obviously I’m concerned. I’m self-employed; I have loyal clients that I need to get back for but at the moment I can’t weight-bear and if I try to the leg swells up like a balloon.’

In the days following the snake bite, her leg swelled to almost three times its normal size, and turned almost completely black. The bruising is still visible in places today, and she is having tests to assess whether there has been any damage to her major organs.

‘I really thought I was going to die. In the hospital, I needed five bags of antivenom. It didn’t seem to be working at first. They kept marking, on my leg, where the venom had travelled. The first mark was on my ankle, then on my lower leg, then at my knee, then further up. When it got to my groin there was a real sense of panic,’ says Sam.

A blunt-headed viper - the species of snake that left Sam fighting for her life in hospital

A blunt-headed viper – the species of snake that left Sam fighting for her life in hospital

‘At one point, I was aware of them talking about cutting my leg. The language issues made it confusing. I thought they meant amputation, but my wife thinks they considered cutting the muscle because of the pressure of the venom building.

‘Meanwhile I was vomiting, hallucinating. Even when I started to recover, I had no sensation at all in my leg. It was as if it wasn’t there.’

She still seems shell-shocked when we meet. ‘I didn’t even know Cyprus had snakes, never mind venomous ones,’ she says.

Obviously it’s not something that travel companies are going to shout about in their brochures and, to be fair, while Cyprus has snakes, attacks by venomous ones are rare.

Nothing like this has happened near the hotel in the past decade. The snake that attacked Sam was identified as a blunt-nosed viper, which can grow to around 5ft long and have distinctive markings.

Tourists may be blissfully unaware of the dangers, but the Ministry of Defence (there are two British military bases in Cyprus) routinely advises personnel stationed on the island to be aware that venomous snakes are present.

Many travel firms do issue warnings in the small print, and one travel website (for a car-hire company) describes the blunt-headed viper (or Macrovipera lebetinus) as the ‘bad boy of the island’s snakes; the only potentially lethal snake’.

Around 40 people in Cyprus are hospitalised each year after being bitten by venomous snakes, according to a study in the Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology, and there have been two deaths since 2000, both pensioners.

‘I was told that because I was young and quite fit my heart was strong, which probably saved me,’ says Sam.

‘Apparently, those who have died from this snake bite were older, with weaker hearts which just couldn’t cope. My heart was racing and they were very worried about my blood pressure, which was through the roof.’

Her care involved constant monitoring: ‘I was never on my own. There were always a couple of doctors there, but at times there were up to 15.

‘I think because it was so rare, they were using me for training. A few nurses came in and asked if they could take pictures of my leg because they’d never dealt with anything like this before.

‘With hindsight, I probably was very lucky for several reasons. I’d seen the snake coming at me so had jumped up on to the steps, so it bit me on the ankle rather than further up the leg. Also, it happened with people around, so medical attention was quick.

‘I dread to think what would have happened if I’d been doing yoga alone, as many did in that resort. If the snake had bitten someone lying down, it could have gone for the neck or head, which doesn’t bear thinking about.’

Initially, the hospital said that Sam would have to stay on a general ward for at least another week, but such was her distress that it was agreed she would be discharged to recuperate at her hotel. She and Kate were given a room adapted for disabled guests.

They tried to keep things as normal as possible for Addison, but inevitably ‘she spent the majority of that last week in the room with us, with Kate looking after me. I couldn’t even go to the toilet on my own.’

Sam and her family's next holiday will to be to a snake-free, relaxing destination

Sam and her family’s next holiday will to be to a snake-free, relaxing destination

The bruising spread as the venom travelled up Sam's leg while doctors fought to stop it

The bruising spread as the venom travelled up Sam’s leg while doctors fought to stop it 

They were understandably anxious about letting Addison out in the hotel grounds. ‘She was under strict instructions not to go near any bushes,’ says Sam. Now, ‘she is very clingy. She’s obviously been affected’.

By the time Sam arrived back at the hotel, the rough grass around the yoga platform had been cut. As far as Sam is aware, the snake was never found.

‘I was told that it had been spotted before, this particular snake, but the person who saw it hadn’t realised how dangerous it was.

‘The day after it happened, there were people back on the platform and Kate went to reception and said she was concerned about this. The woman on duty told her, ‘We have no snakes.’ She said, ‘Well my wife was bitten by one yesterday and is in ICU.’

‘We heard from other guests that they were telling people there were no snakes, too, even though lots of people — including the holiday rep — witnessed what had happened.

‘And at the same time, a member of staff told me that the reason they had so many cats around was because they knew they had snakes.’

There were wider issues with the hotel which Sam can’t discuss in detail because legal action is pending. ‘Thankfully, we had travel insurance, and the insurance company was brilliant.

‘The TUI reps on the ground were great too. But I wasn’t happy with the hotel. I felt unwanted.’ A TUI UK spokesman has said the company is ‘aware of an incident’ at the hotel and that the ‘safety of our customers is our highest priority’.

Sam’s flight home proved a further ordeal. ‘I needed stronger painkillers. The insurance company arranged for us to have six seats because my leg needed to be up all the time, but with the pressure in the cabin, the pain was excruciating. I think it has put me off flying altogether.’

Dare I ask how she feels about snakes now?

‘I’d never thought much about them before, but now I keep having nightmares about them, and every time I turn on the TV there seems to be a programme about them.’

If there is a next holiday, it probably won’t be to Cyprus, however much relaxation is promised. ‘Kate has been googling, “What countries DO NOT have snakes”,’ Sam says.