Fort Myers, Florida (News-Press) -- Question: What feels like a combination of the worst trip ever to the dentist, a ruptured ear drum, a dislocated shoulder, a severe burn, a nail through the kneecap, an electrical shock, a bad case of sciatica, and a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, all concentrated in a very small part of your body?
Answer: The pain in my left thumb after a lionfish got me.
Of course, two bonehead moves on my part were at the root of the whole agonizing mess.
This tale of woe takes place July 31 on the Atlantic side of the Keys, where I was diving with Jon Hazelbaker of Fort Myers Beach, Kelly Ican of Columbus, Ohio, and my wife, Nadine, aboard the Hammerhead, Hazelbaker's 37-foot Pro Cat.
My primary goal was to to kill lionfish with my pole spear; lionfish are nasty non-natives that eat vast quantities of juvenile native fish, including snappers and groupers; lionfish are also delicious, so shooting them is good not only for the environment but also for supper.
Anyhow, I made my first bonehead move before our second dive at about 9 a.m.: After four days of diving (during which I'd speared 16 lionfish), the latex coating of my dive gloves was getting sticky, so I decided to dive barehanded; after all, what's the worst that could happen? (Did I mention that a lionfish has 18 venomous spines and that, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website, lionfish stings can cause "extreme pain, sweating, respiratory distress, and even paralysis"?)
A key piece of gear for lionfish hunting is a LCU (lionfish containment unit), which is a PVC cylinder into which you put your speared lionfish — if you just hang lionfish from a stringer, you run the risk of being stung.
After shooting my second lionfish of the dive, I made my second bonehead move: As I put the lionfish into the LCU, I saw a red grouper off to my right, and instead of focusing on getting the lionfish into the LCU, I focused on the grouper, figuring to make it my next target.
That's when a lionfish spine sank deep into the soft underside of my ungloved left thumb.
Pain was instantaneous and incredibly intense.
Diving suddenly lost its appeal, so I returned to the Hammerhead to soak my thumb in hot water (as with stingray stings, heat is the prescribed treatment).
In a phone interview this week, Francis Smith, medical information specialist for Divers Alert Network, said that sometimes there's too much venom in the wound or the venom is too deep for heat to be effective.
So, for the next three hours, I was in serious, burning, aching, explosive pain. Over the past 25 years, I've been nailed many times by the venomous spines of hardhead catfish, always a painful experience, and in December 1998, I was stung on the left foot by a stingray, also extremely painful, but neither stingray nor catfish came close to producing the agony of that lionfish sting.
When the other divers surfaced, they offered to take me to shore, but reasoning that being miserable on the water is better than being miserable on land, I declined and made four more dives that day.
A few minutes into the first one, I swam boldly up to a lionfish, shot it through the gills, got it into my LCU without incident and ate it that night.
To paraphrase the old saying: Revenge is a dish best served with cold beer.
Medical update: Two weeks later, my left thumb is still swollen and hurts when I make a fist.
— Compiled by Kevin Lollar
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