Venom: my brush with death

You’ve heard the claim that in your final seconds on Earth, your entire life flashes before your eyes? Well, it really happened for me, although it wasn’t quite as I would have imagined. Instead of memories of the most prominent parts of my life, I had glimpses of what I presumed were insignificant moments; such as driving with a friend and going down a waterslide. Regardless, lying on that concrete floor in Barbados was the most scared I’ve ever felt. Let me start from the beginning…

I’m just 17 years old and on a wonderful family holiday in the Caribbean island of Barbados. My Dad and I are enjoying the gentle ocean, whilst my Mum and younger brother are snoozing on the sand, within the private section of our hotel beach. The crisp, salty waters are clear, encouraging me to delve deeper into the exotic ocean, but suddenly the base of my foot gets scratched by something pretty sharp. Presuming that I’ve scraped my foot on a rock, I brush it off as “nothing” for a moment, but something inside me prompts me to think it’s time to get out. On the sun lounger next to Mum, we examine my foot. We both look and see a tiny hole with a very miniscule amount of blood – certainly nothing to worry about, we think, as my Dad takes the 2-minute walk back to our hotel room to get a plaster to stop the sand getting in. If we knew what was to come, we’d know that sand was the very least of our problems.

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Within barely a few seconds of Dad being gone, I’m gripped by a rapid tingling, an inner burning sensation and dizziness all in one moment. It feels like something has taken over my body. I’m squirming, pulling the beach towel over my head and violently back down, clenching my fists as tight as I can on nothing at all. I suddenly feel like Peter Parker as the venomous radioactive spider encapsulates him. Something is making its way through my entire body, and things are not okay.

After what seems like a decade, my Dad returns with a miniscule plaster. After staring up at him, he notices the beads of sweat covering my face, prompting my Mum, who has just woken up to the oncoming drama, to decide that we urgently need to find some first aid. I limp weakly but quickly to the outside reception of the hotel whilst gripping Dad and scooting awkwardly past holidaymakers around the pool – perhaps the area that I should have stayed in.

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After Mum asks if they have a first aid kit, we are met with a relaxed response of “no, not really…” Brilliant. From this point, my only memory is of Dad turning to me and saying “you okay Jess?”, to which I vacantly responded, “no…” and collapsed onto the floor. Now, as I was unconscious I evidently don’t remember the next part but I then proceeded to have a fit before passing out again. When I come round there’s a group of people surrounding me and peering into my face with concern. People are shouting for ambulances to be called, others are running about and there’s a sense of general panic. What’s happening to me?

I’m scared, terrified, am I going to die? I’ve never felt anything close to this before but I’m thinking that there’s so much that I want to do with my life. This can’t be the end – can it?! Suddenly a woman from the hotel appears and tries to calm me down and asks me what my name is – that’s an easy one, I think, as I try to utter “Jessica” – but the word doesn’t come out. I’m paralysed. I can’t move my legs, my arms are stuck folded over my body, and half of my mouth is dropping to the side. This can’t be happening. Am I having a stroke?

I genuinely feel like this is the end. My brother has started to black out from pure panic and worry. With what seems to be a crowd of now 50 people surrounding me naturally I’m panicking. A lot.

Suddenly a doctor comes bolting in with a huge bag, his deep tan showing that he’s been working in Barbados for a long time – 20 years in fact – and his reassuring face hinting that at least there’s someone who seems to know what they’re doing.

I don’t remember much from this point, but I do know that barely a few minutes later, someone shouted that the ambulance had arrived, which was met by a firm response from the doctor of “if we put her in that ambulance, it will be too late. She won’t make it.”

I’m quickly lifted onto a sun lounger by four self-appointed men who proceed to march me to our hotel room, before gently putting me on the bed. A drip is immediately set up by the doctor with a whole concoction of drugs, including an intensely strong painkiller; but nothing can quite defeat this pain.

My foot has swelled up like a balloon but at least my body has relaxed – the paralysis was luckily just a side effect of shock and not that of the venom in my system. As the drugs from the intravenous drip start to quickly kick in, we’re assured that I should be fine. This is also the moment that I discover the source of my near-death experience; a stonefish, the most venomous fish in the world.

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Stonefish have an incredible camouflage and are notorious for their potent venom. This fact was further accentuated five years later when I was sat in a marine lecture for my field guide training in South Africa and had an entire lesson just on the dangers of stonefish, which also inhabit South African waters. As I raised my hand and exclaimed, “I’ve been stung by one of those!”, the look of shock and leap back in surprise from my instructor said a lot, together with his exclamation of, “and you’re still here to tell the tale?!”

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Stonefish have venom in their 13 dorsal spines to deter predators. Their venom is cytotoxic, which means that they burst and kill cells in a variety of ways, and their particular venom contains a lethal component called stonustoxin which punctures the cell membranes, causing extreme pain, hallucinations and even death.

Despite this horrifying experience (which by the way is extremely rare as stonefish will ordinarily swim away from people, and in fact in the numerous decades in which our hotel has been there, the staff had never heard of anyone being stung by a stonefish), or perhaps because of it, I am fascinated by venom.

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After taking my Godson to the Venom Exhibition at the Natural History Museum this past weekend, I was able to understand further just how far we’ve come in understanding both the dangers and the huge importance of venom in our natural world. Here are five interesting facts to entice your interest in venom…

Did you know:

  • There’s such a thing as ‘venom thieves’ – whereby animals that aren’t naturally venomous themselves can resort to devouring venomous creatures and stealing their venom cells to use to defend themselves
  • Venom proteins have evolved over time to precisely target specific bodily processes, causing a variety of effects depending on their intent. Generally venoms target the circulatory, nervous or muscular systems, or a mixture of two or all three together.
  • The variety of venoms in our natural world is astonishing, and can range from a single component to a cocktail of thousands of ingredients.
  • With the evolution of venom in specific animals, there has also been a development of resistance to particular venom in certain animal targets. This means that some animals have adapted to fend off nature’s ultimate weapon.
  • Venom can take lives but it can also save them. As science develops, we are discovering ways that venom can be used in to produce live-saving drugs. We are merely at the beginning of discovering all of the potential that venom holds.

Venomous creatures can be a scary thought, but as with everything in nature, if we give them the respect that they need and leave them in their natural environment, they shouldn’t be feared. What happened to me was a very rare occurrence, and though very scary, it’s now sparked my interest and insight into the natural world of venom, allowing me to share my story and spread awareness about one of nature’s most fascinating natural defences.

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