November 2014: CORRECTION
I learned that while “stonefish” or “rockfish” is used in the vernacular, the fish that I stepped on in Puerto Rico is actually a scorpion fish. Thanks to Paul Erickson, formerly of the New England Acquarium, for pointing out that stonefish are exclusively an Indo-Pacific species.
For many years, the warm waters and sands of the Caribbean have been my second home. Whether living on a sailboat, visiting the many islands, or rejuvenating in Rincon, Puerto Rico, I feel a sense of belonging in the Caribbean.
During my 20s, I spent endless hours beneath the surface as a dive instructor. Today, at 47, I continue to stay active on the water through Paddle Diva, my standup paddling business. Lately, catching waves through SUP surfing has become a new passion of mine.
We are a water family. My husband Scott and I have instilled a deep understanding and appreciation of the ocean, its merits and its dangers to my children Emma, 10 and James, 7. In all my years, I never considered that anything that lives beneath the water could hurt me, but recently, on a gorgeously warm day in Rincon, that all changed.
A poisonous Stonefish stung me. It felt like a bolt of lightning had hit the bottom of my foot.
My daughter Emma and I were SUP surfing during low tide. The swells were a bit choppy so we decided to make our way to shore. As we were coming in, I uncharacteristically slipped and was dragged by my board. I had surfed in this spot hundreds of times, so I instinctively knew to keep my feet up — similar to a yoga baby pose. The ocean bottom was closer than I thought, and as I kicked to heave myself back onto my board I felt a sharp jolt.
At first, I went into immediate denial, in fact I told Emma “it’s just a sea urchin.” However, intrinsically I knew by the amount of pain I was in that I had hit a deadly fish and was in trouble.
Even in times of trauma or pain, a mother’s instincts come through. I gathered up as much positivity and fake wellness I could, and told Emma to head back to shore. Her safety was my first concern.
I thought the Stonefish was still in my foot. The intensity of the pain was so strong that it felt like my foot was bathed in acid. Fortunately, my friend Bill, a true Maine waterman, quickly swam out to me. Bill calmly assured me the fish was gone and got me to focus on getting back on my board. Somehow I managed to crawl back onto my board and Bill swam me to shore.
I was in shock, so it’s a bit grey at this point. My foot was bleeding horribly, the pain was unbearable and I was not thinking properly. I remember asking Bill if I was going to die and him reassuring me I was not. I was covered in sand and tears as Bill helped me up the beach.
Pain shockwaves shot through my foot, leg and body as the Stonefish’s venom made its way through my nerve pathways. My entire body was twitching and aching. Feeling faint, I began to dry heave. I remember thinking please let me pass out because the pain was too much.
It felt like an hour, but in reality it only took 8 minutes to get to the Urgent Care Emergency room in Rincon. We pulled up, and I limped out of the truck screaming for help. I think the triage nurses were startled by me — this crazy New Yorker who had been bitten by a Stonefish.
I handed Bill my phone to call my husband Scott who was hundreds of miles away in Montauk, who upon hearing the news felt helpless and scared.
My need for immediate care and pain relief did not come fast. As I sat in the triage, my dear friends William and Krae, who were staying in Rincon with me, appeared in the window of the room — like the Scarecrow and Tin Man to Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz. They both looked at me with care, concern and relief that I was going to be okay.
Dr. Morales came in and examined the puncture wounds on the bottom of my right foot. I was wheeled away to a bed, hooked up to a saline I.V. and finally given an injection of Nubain for the pain. As the wrenching began from Nubain, I was instructed to place my foot in a hot bucket of water.
By now the Stonefish venom was flowing through my blood stream, so my foot was swelling and placing it in the bucket was almost impossible. It felt like barbed wires were surrounding my skin and mashing into my foot, calve and leg.
Later that night, I was discharged from the hospital with nothing but a piece of paper instructing me to rest and three prescriptions: Benedryl, Toradol and Cipro.
As I looked down, it was hard to imagine that those three little pills were going to take care of my foot, which had swelled to three times its size. As I was wheeled out of the freezing cold ER into the warm, sweet smelling air of the Caribbean, I had faith that the meds, along with my strong body and constitution, would do the trick.
While I was cognizant of the day’s events, I was still in total shock and disbelief that this was happening. How could this happen to me?
Like a needle in a haystack, being struck by lightning or winning the lottery — being hit by a Stonefish was a one in a million chance.
Stay tuned…on Friday we will publish the remainder of the story along with the best ways to treat a Stonefish sting.