Boy bitten by rattlesnake gets 1.2-mile push by his principal during youth marathon

Howe Hall AIMS Principal Chris Swetkie said the race was a way to ease Zach Szala back into a school routine.

Chris Swetckie has run many miles in the last couple years, but Friday's 1.2 was about the best he's ever logged.

Swetckie, principal of Howe Hall Arts Infused Magnet School, pushed third-grader Zach Szala in a wheelchair so the youngster could complete in the Charleston Youth Marathon.

This was the first social outing in weeks for Zach, 8, who was bitten twice by a canebrake rattlesnake on Nov. 23 while playing in the woods at Wannamaker County Park.

After five weeks in intensive care and a couple more weeks in a step-down unit, he was released from the hospital on Dec. 30 and is now at home in Goose Creek with his parents, Elizabeth and Anthony Szala, and siblings Abbey, 7, and Ben, 2.

"I was thinking, 'Zach's home. Now what's the next step?' " said Swetckie. "Zach is one of the students at my school, but he is also my next-door neighbor, and he's like one of my own children."

As he often does these days, Swetckie, who lost more than 100 pounds a couple years ago through diet and exercise, pondered the question while he was on his Sunday morning run.

"I needed something that is nonstressful to ease him back into the school routine," Swetckie said. "I was thinking he's home, he's up and moving and getting active, and what better way to get him back with his friends than to let him come out and do the run?"

Before he was bitten by the snake, Zach was part of a group of about 50 Howe Hall students who were training to participate in the children's marathon. Twice a week since October, students would gather to run a mile or two toward their goal.

Part of the weekend festivities of today's Charleston Marathon, the youth event was a 1.2-mile noncompetitive run for students 7 to 17 years old.

It was a modified marathon, which means kids ran or walked 25 miles on their own in the months leading up to the race, then finished with Friday's event. About 300 kids participated, said organizer Mike Campbell.

Before Zach arrived, Swetckie brought the students together and told them Zach would be there.

"Don't swarm him when he gets here," Swetckie said. "He's excited to be doing the marathon, and he's excited to see you. Let him come out and enjoy himself."

Zach was excited and nervous about seeing his friends, Elizabeth Szala said. The boy was shy before, and being the center of attention now makes him uncomfortable, she said.

Though the students were happy to see their classmate, they obeyed their principal and kept their distance, approaching him just a couple at a time.

Dylan Saar, 9, who plays Pokemon with Zach during recess, chose to run with Swetckie and Zach instead of sprinting through the race with many of the other children.

"I just wanted to stay next to them," he said.

For Zach, who had never zipped along quite so fast in his wheelchair, the outing was just plain fun on a cool, sunny January day.

Asked afterward if he enjoyed it, the corners of his mouth curled into a small smile as he answered, "Yeah!"

Watching Zach, who was temporarily paralyzed from the neck up by the snake's venom, smile and enjoy himself was enough for his mother.

"I'm really glad he got to come out and do this," she said.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or on Facebook.


Cards or donations for Zach's medical bills can be sent to:

Zachary Szala

104 Berkeley Square Lane


Goose Creek, SC 29445

Make checks to the Zachary Szala Recovery Fund.

In addition, these events have been planned:

--A four-man captain's choice golf tournament is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Jan. 28 at Legend Oaks Golf Club in Summerville. Entry is $75 per player and includes lunch, door prizes and beverages. Payment must be made by Sunday. For information, call Glenn Powell at 200-5426 or the Legend Oaks pro shop at 821-4077.

--Zach Szala-Snake Wrangler Poker Run Relief Benefit will be held Jan. 29. Registration is at 11 a.m. at Lowcountry Harley Davidson, 4707 Dorchester Road. Entry is $15 per bike and $5 per passenger and includes hamburgers, hot dogs and chili at the Moonshine Saloon. The best hand gets a $100 gift certificate.