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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Hawaii Dangers

Stung by a Portuguese Man-o-War
R.S. DeFrance

Swimming through the clear, calm oceans of the North Shore on Oahu, Hawaii, halfway through my laps I realize my cheap-ass $3.99 goggles, purchased at the super-saver ABC Store, are letting in water. At first, I put them around my neck and continue swimming—changing it up between breast-stroke, back stroke, and froggy-style. My breathing is good, but now salt water makes my eyes sore as hell.

I stop to clean my goggles. Put a little salt water in them, rub them out. They look ready to go, so I continue. Damn it! Still, they leak in water, making it almost impossible to see out of. As I stop to clean them again, standing in shallow waters, I decide to give it one more try and swim with these goggles on my face. A moment later I am struck, stung, I can feel my arm loose power, feels numb, and dumb. I don’t know what to do, so I rub it with the ocean water that surrounds me—which, according to first aid (as I found out later this night) is the first step. I could see where whatever it was entered my body; a slight red mark appeared, followed by severe swelling. Next to it was the mark where I had been bitten. I immediately flexed my bicep muscle—why I don’t know. It felt good, but I still thought about using a gurney to cut-off circulation in my arm for a bit, hoping that it might stop the flow of poison into my blood stream. Then again, sometimes that can lead to amputation, so I decided against it. Let the poison flow, but I still kept a flexed muscle, desperately wishing it could do something.

Next, I went to sit down next to my lover on our rough and sandy beach towels, also from the ABC Store. But, after a couple minutes, I started feeling worse. Jen said I might see if there was first-aid in the trunk of her dad’s girlfriend’s (Helen) silver Toyota Camry. Talking to Jeff, her dad, for a minute or two, he suggests I see the lifeguard. Since I had been considering that already, I walked, almost ran, over to talk to the lifeguard, just as one took his surfboard into the ocean. Thankfully, there was another on-duty.
"Hey," he responded.
"Can I ask you something?"
"I think I got bit by something in the water."
I showed him the swelling on my left arm.
"Come up here."
After I ran up the steel stairs, he continued.
"Let me see…Uh…uh-huh."
"Well, what is it?"
"Did you see anything in the water?"
"No. I didn’t see anything."
"I wish I had, but I couldn’t see a damn thing."
"It’s probably a jellyfish sting or a Portuguese man-o-war."
"A man-o-whatta?"
"Yeah, they’re very common in these parts."
"What should I do? I mean, what can happen?"
"Here," he said, breaking the crystals in an icepack "put this on it for twenty minutes. Stay out of the sun, drink lots of water. If it gets worse in thirty minutes, you should like call 9-11 or whatever. You should probably go to the hospital if it gets worse."
"How will I know?"
"Any shortness of breath or if you feel like you’re going to pass out."
"Okay, thanks."

As I leave, I think to myself: not only was that guy not concerned, he sounded more stoned than I am half-the-time.
Getting back to the car, I drank every liquid in sight—two water bottles and a Life Water (Sobe). Sitting in the back seat, in the shade, I try to recover. Soon after Jen comes in with the beach stuff.
"I may need to go to the hospital if I feel much worse."
"Okay, just hope the car works—new tires today and all," Jeff said.
Turning the key to start the ignition, nothing happens. It must be the battery I thought.
"I don’t like when things don’t work like they are supposed to work."
"Well, I don’t like it when my boyfriend gets stung by jellyfish."
"Well, then what is he doing here?"
"Same thing as Portuguese people, they migrate."

After Jen got me some more water and a hotdog, I thought I might feel better. I also got some shaved ice put in a bag to replace the now luke-warm icepack the lifeguard gave me. My arm puffed up in two spots. Filled with poison, I thought about piercing my own skin to try and drain the puss out like squeezing a wet towel. Once finished with the dog and another water bottle, I momentarily thought I might heavily hurl hotdog all over the place. Then, my feelings worsened—I felt like I might pass out. A minute later, we called the ambulance. Quickly, a helicopter cruised over us to survey the area. When I felt like I might not be able to hang on any longer, my hopes were salvaged by my caring woman.
"Here," as she held out her hand, "squeeze my hand."
I held her hand and squeezed it a little.
"That’s it?"
"You really want me to squeeze it?" I asked
"Yes—hard as you can…okay, ouch, you seem okay."
"Don’t worry. I still got some fight left in me."
About twenty-five minutes later, a Fire truck came, which I had to follow across the street. Then, the ambulance came. They checked my vital signs and they seemed normal. No shortness of breath is a good thing. If shortness of breath had occurred, it would be a medical emergency. I would have to go to the hospital before I had a cardiac arrest or just died. I had a little trouble swallowing, but no trouble breathing.
"Do you want to go to the hospital?"
"Not really. I mean I didn’t even want to call you guys, but I was just doing what the lifeguard told me. But, what do you think I should do?"
"If it were me, I would go. Besides, it would avoid any litigious situation, like us being sued at a later date."
"Do I need to go the hospital?"
"Your vitals are good and symptoms are normal. Are you still breathing okay?"
"Yes," I said after taking a breath.
"It’s up to you. Do you want to go? If not, I have to have you sign a release form that relinquishes us of any responsibility."
"I think I’ll sign the form."

As I finished signing the form, the AAA truck arrived to charge the battery. I walked back over to the car.
"Who knew that the ambulance would beat the AAA truck—we called AAA like ten minutes before?" I asked.
"If I knew, we just could have had the Fire truck give us a jump."
"They offered, if only we had cables."

Apparently, the North Shore is a hot spot for Portuguese Man-o-wars, who like the warmer water. Although signs are usually posted when they are around, there were none. Most stings are not too serious, but 1/5 people, or 20%, will die from one. Despite passing out in the car on our way back to Honolulu and going to sleep un-nerved, I woke up groggy, tired, drained, but—for-the-most-part—no worse for wear. My armpit didn’t swell up, nor did my scars itch like the lifeguard said. All that remained the next day were two dark blue and swollen veins—one an inch long, the other a half inch. One day I will probably forget all about this, cataloging it as just another time I almost died August 14th, 2006

Bio:  In 2008, I was published in The Rebuttal, Dance to Death Literary Magazine, 95Notes Literary Magazine, the Magazine Rack, A Dab of the Shwibly and The Word.  In addition to these publications, in
2008, I founded, created, and edited a new Literary Magazine called A Dab of the Shwibly (

English Instructor
Los Angeles Southwest College
Long Beach City College
University of California, Irvine

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