NEW ORLEANS -- When a water moccasin sank its fangs into a toddler's foot and put an abrupt end to a July 4, 1991, barbecue near Abita Springs, an entire family feared for the life of the 17-month-old child.
His heart stopped beating twice during the episode, but thanks to a team of medical professionals, the baby boy was standing up in his crib at Children's Hospital within two days.
Now, 18 years later, that same boy is alive, well and training to save lives in the same way he was once saved.
After all these years, Kyle Bennett, a lifelong St. Tammany Parish resident, is still thankful to the men and women who rescued him on that summer day, and on Tuesday he was finally given the opportunity to say so in person.
At Acadian's Emergency Medical Service Academy near Covington, where Bennett is training to serve as an ambulance operator, the young man was reunited with the doctor, EMS operators and emergency dispatcher who treated his snakebite. With his family, friends and classmates all present, Bennett showed his appreciation to the staff.
"I feel relieved to know that they know I am thankful, and that I'm using my second chance at life to give back and do something useful," Bennett said.
Bennett, 19, began training at Acadian's EMS Academy this month and will continue until mid-August, when he'll start his pre-medical undergraduate study at Southeastern Louisiana University. While in school, Bennett will work as an ambulance operator before going on to medical school.
"Kyle has the skill and the talent to become a health care professional," said Andy Bruch, an education coordinator at Acadian's EMS Academy who organized Tuesday's gathering. "I know he has his family's support."
Bennett said the snakebite incident that almost killed him was an important factor in choosing a career in the medical field, but his mother's battles with epilepsy and lupus also have given him the drive to care for the sick.
"I'm proud of him for going into the health care field," said his mother, Augusta Taylor. "He's always known about his close encounter with the snake, and he's always wanted to give back."
Though he survived to become a normal, healthy young man, the 1991 incident was dramatic enough to earn it a spot on the television series Rescue 911, which aired just two months later. During the reunion celebration, everyone gathered to watch the episode.
At the barbecue, the family fun was broken by the cries of then-17-month-old Bennett. The curious child had found a cottonmouth coiled in the backyard grass. The snake bit the child when he got too close.
Once Bennett had been snatched away to safety, his mother was on the phone with a 911 dispatcher. Taylor, an active nurse, said she knew quick action was essential to saving her child's life.
Meanwhile, Joe Taylor, Augusta Taylor's cousin, killed the snake. Without a weapon, Joe Taylor stomped on the reptile until it was dead.
"It might not have been the smart thing to do, but with the adrenaline flowing you don't think anymore, you just act." Joe Taylor said.
Within 19 minutes, an ambulance was on the scene, where the EMS operators found Bennett still conscious and crying with a black, swollen leg.
George Schwindling took Bennett and his mother into the ambulance and applied ice packs and constricting bands to the child's leg to stop the flow of venom while the ambulance rushed to St. Tammany Parish Hospital in Covington. Schwindling, who now works for Acadian Ambulance, said he wasn't sure the baby would pull through at the time.
When Bennett reached the hospital, he was brought to Dr. Philip Gardner, the on-call general medicine surgeon. Because the boy's leg was swollen and the family had the foresight to bring the dead snake in a jar, Gardner said he was able to quickly size up the situation and administer an anti-venom.
Gardner shook hands with Bennett for the first time Tuesday. "It is very gratifying to see him alive and healthy," Gardner said. "It makes me remember why I really got into medicine. It's nice to have someone say 'thank you.' "