Brush with nature painful for Grand Strand visitor

Tuesday, August 28, 2001

Of The Post and Courier staff

     Mark Leavitt's Lowcountry vacation wound up in an emergency room after a venomous Portugese man-of-war wrapped a long tentacle around his shoulders and back.
     "It felt like I was being electrocuted in the water," said the 45-year-old Connecticut software programmer. Then came the pain.
     He crawled from the surf off Myrtle Beach, where he was swimming last Thursday morning. A lifeguard came to his aid and identified the man-of-war from a 15-inch-long tentacle embedded in Leavitt's skin. "My back felt on fire," Leavitt said Monday, while vacationing in Charleston and still suffering considerable pain.
     Leavitt and wife Lynn shared their experience before heading home to South Windsor because, they've found, many Lowcountry residents haven't heard of the man-of-war or don't know it lives here. Other people could be hurt, the Leavitts noted, especially during Labor Day beach trips.
     On the ambulance ride to Grand Strand Regional Medical Center Thursday, Leavitt felt tightness in his chest. Paramedics were concerned about an allergic reaction, which can cause shock and death.
     Dr. Steven Law removed 40 to 50 barbs, the nematocysts that discharge venom, said Leavitt, who spent six hours in the hospital. "He was shaking. I thought he was going to die," said Lynn, who added that she hasn't slept well since.
     Said Leavitt, "When people hear 'jellyfish,' they think jellyfish. This is a Portugese man-of-war. It has that name because ... it releases a venom that's potent and dangerous. It can kill you."
     A patient's reaction depends on the amount of venom injected, amount of skin affected, age and health, said Dr. Charles Gilman, an emergency medicine specialist at the Medical University of South Carolina.
     Raised, red skin lesions can progress to hives. A patient also may have a systemic reaction with shortness of breath, weakness, headache and vomiting, Gilman said.
     Anyone allergic to the venom can die, Gilman said. Blood pressure drops, hives develop away from the sting site, the patient wheezes and becomes short of breath. A victim swimming some distance from shore might not make it to land, the doctor added.
     It's best to flush a man-of-war sting with sea water or saline; fresh water causes the release of more toxins, Gilman said. Remove tentacles by scraping them off, or see a doctor.
     Tentacles may extend 50 feet beyond the purple-blue float of the man-of-war, which bobs along on the surface, said Elizabeth Wenner, senior marine scientist with the S.C. Natural Resources Department.
     The man-of-war, actually a colony of animals, usually lives in the Gulf Stream and isn't common near shore here, but currents or westerly winds can move them into shallow water, Wenner said.
     Far more common near shore at this time of year are stinging nettles and sea wasps, Wenner said. Those jellyfish can cause red welts that are less severe and shorter-lived than Leavitt suffered.
     For folks plunging into the ocean this Labor Day, Wenner said, "There is no need to be concerned, but be careful. People need to realize the sea is not a swimming pool."
     "I'm not sure I'll go back in for a long time," said Leavitt.

Mark Leavitt shows sting from portugese man of war
                    Tom Spain/Staff
Mark Leavitt shows sting
received Thursday from
a portugese man of war
he encountered in the
surf at Myrtle Beach.

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