Elizabeth Kobe was in National Geographics film "Deadly Dozen 2 - Central America". To contact her about this story, email at: email@example.com
From the moment the plane touched ground in the Dominican Republic airport, I had some vague feeling that this trip wasn't going to go to well. Have you ever taken a vacation and knew it was going to be a nightmare, wishing the first day was the last. Well this trip to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic proved to be a real horror, one in which I almost lost my life.
I've been to a few other carribbean islands, but not this one. I was hoping that this trip would provide me time, space and peace in my life, since I was making some personal changes. But, this carribean experience in the waters of Punta Cana definitely made a huge change in my mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing. Who could ever possibly dream of encountering and experiencing the horrible wrath of a Portuguese Man-of-War, whose lethal stings brought me down to the ocean floor. I survived that day of September 21, 2003 and in which I believe, to have been a near death experience. Since then, I haven't been exactly the same person. Some of my family and friends contest to that, there is something different in me. I don't know what it is, but I do attest to a disconnected feeling of some sort, or perhaps as my good friend Diane states, a spiritual fracture. It is as if my spirit departed, came back and changed, and a spiritual separation occurred. The road back towards my recovery was long and as I reminisce this day, to write this story, it creates a turbulence of tears.
The change in my life began on Saturday, September 21, 2003 around 5PM, in the waters of Punta Cana. I was staying at a very luxurious resort, a place where any desires you thought of could be met. The resort was secluded and there were plenty of remote places to find solitude along the miles of beach. As I walked along the beach that late afternoon, the sun was setting in a beautiful turquoise pinkish sky with clouds swooning around. A calm warm breeze was blowing and the waves were a bit rocky, since a thunderstorm recently blew over. It was almost my last day on the island and I decided to venture into the waters alone. Not being a good swimmer, I waded. The idea of being alone, created some space to think about issues surrounding my life. Out there in the ocean, as my eyes drifted along the sandy white beach that day, I found a little bit of heaven, a blissful moment, so I thought. As the water caressed me, I suddenly felt this incredibly sharp punch on my abdomen, as if my body was caught in a sandstorm or a handful of wet sand was thrown at me. The sand stung like tiny darts. What was that!, I thought. I tried to catch my breath, remain in control, but the waves just kept pounding at my head. My thighs, groin, shoulders and arms suddenly felt this incredible sensation.
MY HEART BEGAN TO BEAT WILD, I SLID INTO PANIC AND TRIED TO STAY AFLOAT !
This photo taken the next day, shows blisters and painful swelling caused from the venomous stings. She received little treatment from the resorts medical doctor. The delayed treatment resulted in temporary spinal paralysis, muscular pain and neurological problems. Initial treatment usually consists of removing toxins from the area effected as well as intravenous antihistamine, antiinflammantory and pain medication. Recovery is usually three to six weeks with proper treatment. Elizabeth recovered eight months later.
I didn't know what hit me and why I was becoming so overwhelmed. As I became weaker, losing physical control, I had a difficult time staying afloat. Being a nurse, I couldn't figure out what was wrong. I could feel my blood pressure dropping, my body going limp and barely keeping my head up out of the water. The waves kept hitting, twisting and turning me in all directions. My eyes were burning and I tried to focus on the distant beach. From the beach I could hear my friend's voice saying, "Go, lizzy, go". What is he chanting, I thought. What does he think I am doing out here, joking around. I'm in serious trouble! It was becoming harder to catch my breath, and beginning to feel winded. I struggled to pick my arms up high enough to wave, and to muscle out my voice to scream help, but the ocean water kept filling my mouth, and I was inhaling it. At that present moment, I realized I was going to drown. I couldn't think straight. There wasn't any help. All the thoughts filling my head was that I am going to drown and die. No one is going to save me, and I am leaving this world. I was alone, scared, and exhausted. The waves kept crashing over me and my body was being pulled down into the powerful undertow. As I sank deeper and deeper into the depth of the ocean, I lost total control and this complete sense of nothingness came over me. Drifting downwards, I watched my hair, arms, legs become weightless. When my body hit the ocean floor, I layed there thinking how hard the floor seemed and I must be dying now. It was sort of confusing how I thought, do I want to drown and die here?
Everything felt soft around me, like being wrapped in a silk blanket or veil. I didn't know if I wanted this feeling, or not. Giving into it was so inviting. I can't recall how long this experience lasted, though it seemed for awhile. But what happened next, saved my life. Call it instinctual, survival or from a higher power. I heard this very faint voice softly saying, "Push up, push up, push yourself up". I couldn't, I didn't know how, I was too tired. Then again, I heard this voice, Push up!, push up! I automatically could feel my toes digging into the ocean floor and then with all my might, gave myself one big heave upwards,like a rocket propelling. My head came to the ocean surface, my mouth expelling water and gasping for air. I was confused, had no sense of location and drifted for a few seconds. The waves were calmer, rocking me gently until I got glimpse of a security beach guard. Seeing him, made me swim so hard towards the beach.
When I made it to the beach crawling up onto the sand, the guard came over and spoke in spanish to me. I nodded I was okay. Though safe, I was completely exhausted and bewildered. I still could not fathom what happened out there in the ocean. As I layed there recouperating, my companion P.C. came over and asked me what happened and noticed red marks on my body. I thought nothing of these marks, only that they probably were caused from hitting the ocean floor. I spoke of almost drowning, and complaint of feeling dizzy. I stood up and headed back to my room in a daze, as if, in a state of shock.
In the room, I collapsed on my bed, and rested for a brief time, about an hour, before taking a shower to get the sand off. I still had no idea that I came in contact with a Portuguese Man-of-War. Before I showered, I examined my body in the mirror (my bathing suit on) and saw these large painful looking red welts, on my arms, shoulders, legs and thighs. It looked as if, I was whipped by something. Most of these marks were about 6" long and some smaller. When I took a shower I removed my tank top and felt this prickly feeling all over. I was lightheaded, and thought after showering a cool bath might help. When I stepped into the tub, facing the mirrors, I practically collapsed in horror to what I saw. I was stuned by this appearance of a very large brilliant red, sickle shaped, whipped mark on my abdomen. I first thought it might of been a sunburn, but as I looked closer at my abdomen, it was one of those welts measuring at least 9 " long and 3" wide. My skin wasn't open, but the brilliance of red, made it appear as if my skin was. In the epidermis layer of my skin, I could see these tiny little black spurs sticking out. As I turned around in the mirror, I had a couple more of these shapes on my back and waist, though they were smaller. It was ugly and didn't know what these small black things were. I began plucking them out with my fingers. (A few days later I found out that these black spurs are called nemocysts filled with toxins and are not suppose to be removed by one's fingers, since that is how the toxins are then released into the body.
After dinner that evening and around 8pm, I was beginning to feel very hot and feverish. My neck, arms, legs,and abdomen started to swell. Thinking it was all in the days excitement, I decided to retire early that evening, and returned to my room to lay down. Throughout the night, the fever fluctuated. I had bouts of extreme coldness and the sensation of burning up. All the sheets, blankets, bathrobes piled on top of me weren't enough to keep me warm. The fever was high enough that my skin became so sensitive to touch, that the sheets and/or a hand felt like sandpaper rubbing me.
The following morning, September 22, around 7am, 14 hours later, I awakened and got out of bed. I examined my body and saw these tremendous nickel size golden blisters forming on my abdomen. Still puzzled and feeling dazed, I got dressed and sought help. I found a few of the resorts employees (Dominicans) who were the restaurant staff, and showed them my abdomen and welts. They looked frightened and in excitement raised there voices saying, "go, go, go, doctoro! doctoro!, emergencia!, emergencia! I stood there looking at them before it dawned on me, that this is something serious and I should go to the doctor. I was calm, yet my brain wasn't registering quick. I then walked to the resorts main desk and showed the front desk clerks my abdomen. The two clerks faces had these blank stares and gawked at me. Immediately, they sent me over to see the doctor. In the office I showed the very young male doctor my welts and abdomen surfaced with blisters. He stared at the wounds, st ared at me, then stared at the wounds and said in a very upsetting voice, "That is a Cnidarian, cnidarian! When?". I said "Yesterday". He replied, "Oh my! You can't do anything now". I asked what's a cinadarian and the doctor informed me that it was a Portuguese Man-of-War. I couldn't believe what he said and I knew that PMOW wasn't a good thing. I started to worry, but remained calm. The doctor inquired when I was going home and that I should follow up seeing my own doctor. He gave me a few bandages, suggested buying benadryl cream for the blisters at the resorts pharmacia, watch for infection and take tylenol for the fever. He dismissed me rather quickly and I felt unattended to, but then again I was in a foreign country, in a remote area and getting to a hospital would of taken hours, it was the best he could offer. Besides, the doctor said there was nothing I could do, but to watch for symptoms of infection. What kind of symptoms, I didn't ask, and he didn't say.
That morning of September 23, I was finally going home. The early flight back to NJ was unbearable. I couldn't sit up in the seat nor move around, since the spasms in my back were bad and the blisters were huge and ready to break. I had to put a pillow under the seatbelt so they wouldn't break on flight. My body still feverish and swollen. I finally made it home to NJ that evening about 9pm and passed out from the pain and exhaustion. The next day, 4 days after the incident, I called my brother Al in Pennsylvania, who then called his diver friend, who then gave my brother a phone number to Diver's Alert, whom I called and was given a phone number to a Dr. B. a specialist/researcher in Cnidarians in the Univeristy of Maryland Medical Center. I also got in contact with a company in Monterey, CA who also did research in jellyfish, and they gave me a number to another doctor. I called the doctors and emailed them asking what to do as in treatment. Everyone I spoke with and emailed to said the same thing, that the toxins will take a long time to leave my system. That one doctor in NYC, said it will take from 6 mths to 1 year to fully recouperate, and could not tell me, if there will be any long lasting physical effects. There were not enough documented cases to state what happens. Many cases go unknown/unreported.
The next day, being 5 days later, I made an appointment with my medical doctor in Landing, NJ. The ride was extremely difficult because I couldn't move. When the doctor examined me, he was stunned and said those words which still ring in my head "You are lucky to be alive". "PMOW paralyze there victims for food" He didn't know exactly what to do since 5 days past already and that here is no antivenom or antidote to give me. He said the toxin caused the encephalitic symptoms. That the evenomation of the large amount of toxins effected my central nervous / neuromuscular system, triggering muscle spasms feeling like a temporary paralysis. He sent me home with presciptions for pain, antispasmodics, and antibiotic cream for the lesions. To take as many warm baths every day and watch for infection. That he would get in touch with the Dr B. in Maryland and see what else can be done. As I was leaving his office, the dr. said again, "You could of died, and you're lucky to have survived that large amount of toxin." I shook my head in acknowledgement and explained that I didn't feel like myself, that there was some sort of split or this disconnected feeling going on. He couldn't answer me, but offered encouragement that in time I will feel the same as to prior the incident.
That night of September 26th, eve of my 46th birthday, my body totally spasmed out. The blisters uniformerly became one large yellow ugly 9 x 3 patch and finally bursted. The toxins set in and I became somewhat of an invalid and bedridden for a few weeks. It was difficult to feed myself, walk or sit. My neck and spine was so rigid that to manipulate my chin bringing it down slightly towards my chest, would be excretiating, I would scream. Getting out of bed lasted only a few brief minutes before the spasms started in. Often, I found myself wandering in the house not knowing what the purpose was for being up. I would go from room to room, like a mouse in a maize, searching and racking my brain trying to figure out what I was doing. I wasn't processing much in a conversation, reading or even taking a phone call, it was to painful to sit, stand or even try to get out of bed to answer the phone. A good friend of mine, John, advised vitamins to help rebuild any nerve damage. The only medication I was taking were multivitamins (extra zinc, K, E, Mag), antispasmodics, benadryl and tylenol to tolerate the pain, but I was fearing that something was short circuiting in my brain.
It was not until the first week of November, I had some relief for short periods of time as I was able to tolerate standing or sitting for about 1/2 hour and would then lay down to recouperate. Since the spasms lessened, eventually I was able to take a bath without assistance or fear of falling in the tub after having a sudden spasm. My abdomen was slightly swollen, the muscles flaccid and the lesion slowly healing and sensitive. My thinking was still off and I found myself having bouts of confusion. When my doctor called as to followup, he said that I was experiencing thought processing problems and it will eventually clear up. It was easy to except this rationale, but at times I literally thought I was going crazy. Not being able to do a simple jumble puzzle, concentrate on reading a book, or write a letter. It was uncomprehendable and frustrating not to do these things. At one insane moment, I found myself hysterically laughing as I layed in the tub, thinking I was assimilating to the life of a jellyfish, and that was the point of the incident. By taking so many baths, I was slowly metamorphasizing into a PMOW. Even though recouperation was slow, it seemed never ending. As the shock wore off, I became more emotionally upset, and realized how it was effecting my life and how I almost lost my life. Though as I was healing physically, I grieved for this loss I felt of my spirit/self since I continued to feel that disconnectedness. I had a hard time understanding this split, it was an unknown feeling..
By December 2003, I was able to tolerate getting up for longer periods, and step outside the house. It was good to feel and breathe the cold air. My Dr. finally got in contact with Dr. B. in Maryland, who concluded that there was no other remedy and not to give me any corticosteriods. Why, I don't know. But all I can do is to "ride the storm" which would take about 6 months to 1 year to fully recouperate. I knew after the call I was going to recouperate fully, but not exactly to who I was before the incident. I still felt like I was separated into two. During this month I continued to place things in odd spots and at times stood around thoughtless and aimless, going from room to room. One time I took the tea kettle into the bathroom and thought the sink was the stove and also, found clothing in the fridge. It wasn't until a week before Christmas that I was becoming so desperate to get out, that I decided to go to the local mall and shop for the holidays. With some spasms g oing on, I bravely got into my car, which I haven't driven for months and went to JCPenney. The drive was tolerable and I made it safely to the mall. I walked around for sometime shopping, but there at a counter, while I was paying for an item, I felt this incredible spasm, moaned in pain and fell to the floor with everyone staring at me. I lost conception of where I was for a moment and thought to be elsewhere. With the clerks assistance, I gradually got my senses together, paid for the item and went home with the excretiating pain in my spine.
Driving home in pain, I took a turn down a local street, a woman came out of her parked car with the drivers door wide open. I did see her, but my response was so slow, that for a moment I didn't even realize I was driving the car. I just saw her standing there. My brain finally registered the dangerous situation and kicked in and said STOP! So I jammed on my brakes, missing her by inches. It was awful, I almost hit her. I couldn't wait to get home. I knew something was wrong here and with my thought processing. I called my doctor immediately when I got home. He reassured me it was part of the toxic effect, and that eventually my thinking will be back to normal and reminded me again, that it can take up to a year to get rid of the toxins. It puzzled me than and still today, that no one can tell me if the toxins will have a long term effect. I was beginning to believe so and still do so today.
As February 2004 rolled around, I was able to stand, walk and sit for longer hours. The welt/lesion on my abdomen healed and what remains today is a huge scar and a daily reminder that turns bright red after a shower. I did have a minor problem then with walking/hiking in the woods, climbing over rocky terrain and up steep hills. When I climbed up a rocky hill like terrain, my brain was sending messages to move my legs one way and they couldn't coordinate the move according to my thoughts. It felt as if, I had two separate body parts. I couldn't complete the hike and had to slide back down the terrain on my belly because I feared I would fall from lack of coordination and balance. It took some time to reeducate my legs to match the thoughts in my head to hike. Eventually, the coordination returned.
Spring and summer of 2004 came and went with some occassional yet minor reminders. I was becoming well and physically getting back into shape. My scarred abdomen was flaccid from losing tone and muscular use from the months of inactivity due to the spasms. The thought processing problem was resolving as to it's own pace, and life was better with not having so many processing problems. When September 23rd arrived and not realizing that it had been a year since the Portuguese Man-of-War incident, a memory cell kicked in and surprised me with an excretiating spasm up and down my spine. As I was sitting on the bed, dressing for work, I suddenly could not move my head nor spine. That familiar pain ran up and down my back, making it rigid. "WOW!" what was that. Puzzled, I sat for a few minutes and the pain slowly went away. I got off the bed, walked into the kitchen to the calendar on the wall and looked at the date. Sure enough, it was exactly 1 year and 2 days after the PMOW incident and what an amazing physical reminder of this almost fateful day, it was an enlightening moment. I stood there in prayer thanking God for my life, and for that tiny voice that told me to push up. I thought about how different I sort of felt as to that fractured and separated feeling of my spirit. I finally understood, that my spirit on that day of September 21, 2003 was encapsulated in a higher power, God's hands perhaps, and given a renewal for change. That this disconnected feeling was the old self leaving and the new self emerging, pushing up, out into life. That in the awe of the power within, that one push can change anything. It was a great push, it saved my life.
As to the present, I haven't been in any ocean waters since the incident. I don't think I will be going back into the ocean for a long time coming, I guess I have good reason.
Elizabeth sent me (Mark Leavitt) this postcard a few years later; she jumped into the ocean waves and conquered her fears of jellyfish and portuguese man-of-war and she states, "the only way was to take the plunge and make a trip back to the caribbean waters". Yes I was scared and anxious in going, but a trip to St. Lucia proved that I can handle it and now, I am happy to say, I did it!
I love the waters and I just couldn't see spending the rest of my life out of the ocean and not going in.