The only thing I knew about stingray barbs before last week-end is that one killed the Crocodile Hunter. I have seen them pulled onto the pier by fishing folks, but I thought they were only dangerous to divers who tried to ride on their backs. Although I keep a sharp eye out for jellyfish, I didn’t worry about stingrays. Before last week-end.
Bob and I went to the beach last week with his son Drew so we could do a little fishing and playing in the water. The water was warm and clear which is unusual for the south Texas Gulf water. It’s usually murky; you can see your foot through the water if you bring your foot 3″ below the surface. I often worry about what is swimming around me, but on Saturday, you could look through 3′ of water and see the fish.
I’m not a big fan of surf fishing. I have mental images of myself catching Jaws and trying to reel her in past my fat, juicy leg. (Hmmmm. That mullet tasted good but they have a lot of bones and besides there’s a hook in it. Think I’ll take a bite out of that human.) No such reservations for Bob and his kids who love fishing in the surf. Or the pier or the creek banks or the bay for that matter.
I’d never seen a stingray wound before I saw Drew’s. It looked more like a tear in the heel of his foot, bleeding freely with dark discoloration about 1/4″ from the tear. Bob was hurrying out of the water, a look of concern on his face. (“Did you forget to shuffle, Drew?”) (“I did shuffle, Dad!”) (“We need to go to the minor emergency clinic. Stingray punctures are painful and the barb might still be in his foot.”)
Because a couple of trucks had just tried sand racing and ruined the compacted sand at our nearest exit, we took the long way out, bumping as we travelled serpentine in others’ compacted tracks. (“The last thing we need is to get stuck,” Bob muttered.) Groans from the backseat accompanied every jostle and bounce. When it was evident that there are no open minor emergency facilities on the island after 7:30 p.m., we hurried to Bay Area Hospital Emergency.
The first thing the ER clerk asked Drew was whether he forgot to shuffle. (“I did shuffle!”) After a 20 minute wait, a tech hustled us back to triage. The triage nurse asked if Drew had forgotten to shuffle. After a long sigh, he said in a suffering voice: “I didn’t forget to shuffle!” The ER’s physician’s assistant looked at the wound and Drew’s obvious distress. “Start him on a morphine drip!” he ordered.
The ER nurses smirked slightly and one of them took him aside, pointing to the plastic container marked “Sting Ray Bucket.” The PA lived in the midwest before Labor Day; it was his first day working in Corpus Christi. The nurses didn’t say, “Stand back and watch,” but they might as well have.
“Just give me a few minutes and I promise you’ll feel better,” one of them comforted Drew. A tech brought back the bucket filled with steaming water and iodine. The nurse had Drew submerge his foot. In minutes, Drew’s estimated pain score went from 10 to 5.
Hot water causes the toxins in the stingray’s barb to break down. The only other concern was whether a remnant of the barb was left in his foot, but an X-ray confirmed that it was not. After 90 minutes of soaking Drew’s foot, we departed with prescriptions for antibiotics and extra strength ibuprofen.
Stingrays like to lie in the warm waters near the coast with sand covering them, their color changing to blend with the sand. Scooting and shuffling your feet creates enough vibration to frighten the rays so they move away from what they think is a threat. Stingrays don’t attack; they only defend. If startled, they’ll whip their tail around to drive away a perceived danger. Doing the stingray shuffle doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get nailed by a ray, but it helps prevent the stingray hop.