By Christine Crosby – Editorial Director GRAND Magazine
Summer is here and time for fun with the g-kids at the beach, right? Well, yes, but with a new twist. I got a nasty surprise while standing waist-deep in the Gulf of Mexico around July 4. The family was huddled close together, laughing and chatting, when suddenly, my right foot felt as though it had been taken off by a shark (not that I’d ever had that experience before, but I have an active imagination). Thus began this grandma’s first experience being stabbed by a sting ray, after many decades around the water.
“Yikes!”, I yelled out, “I’ve been bitten!” Those words proved motivational and my husband and daughter hustled me to shore while the g-kids ran ahead and hailed a passing truck full of very fit lifeguards.
Needless to say, I was relieved to see a whole foot and not a bloody stump at the end of my leg, but was confused by the small puncture wound in my right ankle. What a relief…but why the excruciating pain? Must keep up a brave front for the grandkids…!
Within moments I was stretched out in a beach chair will my foot on an ice pack. The EMT/lifeguard looked me over but because I was seemingly OK and not in a lot of pain (seemingly), he dismissed the idea that I’d been stung by a ray. He did mention that IF that had been the case, he would apply heat (like, the opposite of ice!). We settled on a tentative diagnosis of a bite by an eel….very rare, but everyone went with it.
The kids went back to playing, though more near the water than in it, and I put on a brave face as long as I could. The ice felt like fire, and rather than fading, the pain intensified.
My facade was crumbling so I told my husband we had to go home. He argued for a visit to an emergency room or walk in clinic but I won, so we hobbled to the car while cheerily making light of my agony.
Why? To be a role model of strength? Maybe, so the kids would not begin to fear the water…? I’m not entirely sure.
We were evolving away from the ‘eel bite’ theory and as soon as we hit the door, we were wrapping a hot heating pad around my foot. Instant, blessed relief! Pain creates a reality all its own, and I have a deep sympathy for those who must live with it every day.
So, the cause was determined…stingray…ok, they really hurt, but in a couple of days, it looked fine. Perfect. No problem. I almost forgot about the worst pain of my life. That is, until the foot swelled up and pain returned in the middle of the night. This time, heat did not help. Every call we’d made was wrong, and Wonder Woman was mortal after all.
An urgent care doctor x-rayed it, gave me a tetanus shot, put me on a special antibiotic for marine bites/stings and an intensive schedule of hot water Epsom salt soaks, triple antibiotic cream and bandaging, this to deal with the toxins and staph infection!! Almost four weeks later, the wound is slowly healing, my foot is still partially numb and when touched it feels like raw nerves.
I have a self-image of a strong woman, not afraid of some risk. Not long ago, I was flying around on roller blades or down ski slopes, but this inadvertent encounter with an ancient fish, cousin to the shark, that simply responded to my presence by reflex has set me back more than any thrill-seeking. So let me share a few things I’ve learned in hopes they help you or someone you know…maybe a stranger at the beach.
If you suspect you are stung (a puncture and great pain are clues), apply heat right away. If you’re at a beach with facilities, they might have some type of hot wrap already available. Apparently, the heat not only eases pain but helps break down the toxins injected by the stingrays spine.
Go to a doctor right away. Just do it. (My husband was right. There…I said it)
To avoid them, we’re told to shuffle our feet on the sandy bottom. I have never been a foot shuffler but if it’s that or become afraid of the water, I’ll learn. Stingrays like to burrow in the sand in shallow water. The shuffle warns them away. They won’t attack you unless they are threatened, and stepping on them is perceived as threatening. Then swiftly and in scorpion-like fashion, they whip that tail out and inject you with a highly toxic cocktail of seratonin and enzymes. I’m told that grown men cry from the excruciating pain from these stabs. Now, I know why. They are very rarely fatal (the fluky tragic death of Steve Irwin notwithstanding) but they can have long term health consequences. So…go to the doctor!
And also, go take those grandkids to the beach. If rays have been spotted, try out that shuffle walk with them.
To learn more about these beautiful animals click here