Up Close And Personal With A Portugese Man-Of-War

By January 26, 2015Travel The World

By Laurie Darcus. Who would have thought that my last day in this wonderful country would feel like my last day ever. We decided to venture off and experience the culture of Cuba to celebrate a milestone birthday in January 2011.

As travelers we tend to try and blend in with the culture and experience places more as visitors than as tourists.

Our room was near the university (instead of downtown) and we walked and bussed around, exploring on our own rather than taking pre-packaged tours. No ‘all-inclusive’ for us.

We hiked around Havana for seven days – having ice cream with locals, dodging crashing waves along the malecon, and watching rhumba and salsa recitals at a dance school patio.

Cuba was an experience; a wonderful experience of people who have a different social, cultural and financial system. We learned a lot, and met some very friendly people.

Despite my hesitation (based on a feeling), on our final day we decided to venture to the beach. It was the day after my birthday, the day before our departure, and we wanted some sun and surf. A short bus ride just outside of Havana landed us on a white sandy beach with fun, very fun, waves to ride. I was only in the water about five minutes and was about to get out and dry off, when I thought, “Just one more wave”. As I stood up in the shallow water that was thigh high, I felt the most incredible pain I had ever experienced. Something was wrapped around my knees and stinging me. I reached down to brush it off as I let out a muffled scream.

As I scrambled to the beach and fell, my husband came running. My legs were completely red and swelling larger by the minute. I knew I was in trouble, as my breathing was forced and my heart was beating erratically. The pain worsened and I felt as though I was going to vomit and pass out at any minute. My husband Patrick ran for help.

It seemed like an hour, but I know only minutes passed. Somehow I put on my sundress and started to gather up our things as he came running back with a security guard who had been patrolling the beach.

I had been attacked by a Portuguese Man-Of-War. It looks like a jellyfish, but is very large and injects multiple poisons. The security guard and Patrick helped me to the road where we commandeered the first car that drove by. The woman in the front seat took one look at me and my legs that were now quadruple their normal size and her facial expression told me what I already knew – I definitely was in trouble.

Quickly I was driven to a nearby hospital. As I was helped up the stairs, two nurses met me and whisked me into a shower to clean off the salt water. Quickly I was patted down with powder on the infected areas and two doctors were administering shots – adrenalin and anti histamines. As the blood drained from my face my body began to convulse, I wanted to stop the shaking but I could not. Two doctors and three nurses were working on me, adding more powder to draw out the poisons, covering me as I shivered in a room that was probably 30+ degrees Celsius, monitoring my heart rate and blood pressure, and rubbing my head to try and bring some calm to this frightening situation.

After about an hour, it seemed I was starting to recover from the state of shock into which I had fallen. The medicines were counteracting the toxins that had been injected into my body by the Man-of-War. A nurse took my passport for information and realized I had just celebrated my birthday, and as my body finally stopped shaking they began wishing me “Feliz Compleanos” (Happy Birthday). Big smiles and affection greeted me as my heart finally began to beat normally and colour returned to my face. I remember thinking at the time, “I’m over the worst.” The pain in my legs was still fierce – stinging and burning like nothing I had ever experienced, but I once again felt in control of my breathing and my muscles.

They brought in a television, probably to help me take my mind off the pain. No one spoke English, and my husband’s Spanish is scant, but I listened in on the conversation the Doctor was trying to have with Patrick and I understood that the sting of the Portuguese Man-Of-War can cause heart failure, brain damage, nerve damage, and more.

They wanted to keep me in the hospital for awhile to make sure they could do everything possible to help me through this ordeal. There was always at least one nurse and one doctor at my side through the four hours of my hospital stay.

I asked if I could leave (we had to catch a bus back to town), and though the doctor was a little hesitant, he agreed, but sent me to the pharmacy for two prescriptions – a total cost of approximately $2.40. No cost for the amazing hospital care, they insisted.

It was extremely painful to walk, even to lie down, as my legs were still swollen, red and infected with toxins. That would take weeks to heal. But I left that hospital knowing I had received the best health care I had ever had. These were incredible health care workers who were quick to respond and caring through the ordeal. I will never forget the care they gave to me that day, and the affection they showed to a foreigner. The permanent damage in my knee causes pain now and again and reminds me how lucky I was to have the great care of the Cuban medical team of that hospital.

When we got home we looked up this hospital – and oh how special it really is. It was built to help with the Chernobyl victims who were flown here for treatment. A school and houses were constructed to accommodate the families. I learned that Cuba did more to help the victims of Chernobyl with health care than all other countries combined. Now the hospital is used to treat patients from South America who suffer with blindness or other eye problems. Here are some of the finest eye doctors in the world.

Cuba – thank you for the experience, and for the care of your remarkable health professionals.

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