A little over a month ago, Justin and I decided to spend the weekend down in Playa Coco. We packed our bathing suits, board games, and books and invited some friends to come with us. Saturday was an incredible day – we ran with our dogs in the ocean, witnessed a beautiful sunset, and sat down to an inviting meal with easy conversation.
Sunday morning, we woke up ready for more of the same. We gorged on pancakes, bacon, and tostones, and set out for a day in the sun. It was that afternoon that I experienced the worst pain of my entire life…
As we approached the water that afternoon, everyone discussed a possible run-in with stingrays. Apparently, stingrays are more common in Nicaragua when the Pacific is at its coldest (January-March). So we walked into the ocean with some trepidation, shuffling our feet (to scare off the creepy, slimy rays), but anxious to dive into the refreshing water. Everyone splashed and swam for a solid 10 minutes before our friend, Yaosca, announced that she thought she felt a ray swim by. Though a little more nervous, we continued our swim. Justin and I dove into a rolling wave and as we approached the surface of the water, we planted our feet firmly in the sand. Unfortunately for me, I actually stepped directly on a stingray. The piercing pain was instantaneous and I lept out of the water, crawling up Justin’s back like a monkey.
I limped out of the water, with everyone running close behind – anxious to see what happened and to avoid more stings. By the time we made it to the house, the pain had all but subsided so I changed out of my wet suit and made myself comfortable. I thought the worst was over, but within minutes, an indescribable throbbing, aching pain returned to my foot that would last for 4 hours. Unsure of how to help, everyone in the house dispersed to talk to various people in the area for a remedy.
They returned with suggestions ranging from burning the wound with a cigarette, sticking a hot nail in the wound, to holding a candle flame against the cut. We opted out of the tetanus-bound voodoo and ultimately decided that I needed heat to help relieve the pain. Apparently, rays release a toxin when they sting, and the heat helps to draw this out. For the next 3 hours, my wonderful friends created a water brigade, bringing me a steady stream of pots with boiling hot water. I felt immediate relief with the initial application of near-boiling water, so we decided to immerse my foot in the pot. Shortly thereafter, I found that the pain decreased with my foot elevated, so we returned to hot compresses, switching them out as the washcloth cooled down. Throughout my “treatment,” I felt waves of almost total relief, with the pain dissipating, while at other times, the pain was so unbearable that I cried for it to end. Eventually, the pain began to dull for longer periods of time and we were able to make the drive back home comfortably.
Over the next month, my foot has slowly healed and I’ve had an awesome story to share with friends and family. I suspect that a puncture wound usually heals much more quickly, but the inconvenient location of it in the soft arch of my foot made this more difficult.
So, for those of you worried about stings, here is some helpful advice:
Rays are not aggressive, so an injury from a stingray usually occurs when a swimmer or diver accidentally steps on one.
The conventional wisdom says to shuffle your feet to let the stingrays know you’re coming. Of course, you’re probably more likely to stub your toe on a rock than to step on a stingray.
If you are stung, don’t panic. Stingrays sting to scare us away. The sting is painful, but not very harmful. Victims should make their way back to the safety of shore by shuffling their feet (so they won’t be stung again).
Clean the wound with fresh, clean water and soap.
Remove small parts or barbs of the stinger with tweezers or pliers. You may need medical assistance with this.
Stingray stings are caused by a sharp barb that transmits a protein-based venom. This venom causes extreme pain that will spike and decrease over the next several hours, and often leave cuts and abrasions at the sting site. The pain is most extreme during the first 30-90 minutes after the sting, spiking on and off during this time as well. It is common for a sting to bleed and swell.
The toxin may be neutralyzed by immersing the cleaned wound in fresh, hot water (110 – 113 degrees Farenheit) or by placing towels soaked in hot water on the wound. Be careful not to make the water too hot and scald (burn) the victim. Because stingray venoms are composed of heat-labile proteins, doing this will alter the tertiary structure of the polypeptide protein molecule by denaturing and thereby deactivating the poison. Ultimately this means that the venom will have less effect. Not only does the hot water help with the venom, but at the same time it will significantly reduce the amount of pain the victim is experiencing (borrowed from wikihow.com).
Most importantly, remember that the pain will eventually go away. In the thick of it, I thought it would never end (and I worried that I was perhaps a little over-dramatic). However, it does end and makes you all the tougher, should you be the unfortunate victim…
I would like to say that this shouldn’t keep you from returning to the water. I’m the “fall off your bike, get back on kind of girl.” But, in this case, I must be honest and admit that I have yet to venture back into the ocean. I will wade near the shore, but my next full immersion will be the pool or in April, when ray season is purported to end!