An Encounter With a Stonefish

Gina Bradley's foot swelled after a stonefish stung her in Puerto Rico. Gina Bradley

     The excruciating pain Gina Bradley experienced after getting stung by a stonefish during a recent trip to Puerto Rico was like nothing she had ever felt before. "I would rather have 10 natural births than ever have this happen to me again," she said.

     It would be nearly 15 days before she would fully recover, and because she realizes now that she could have felt relief a lot sooner had she known the right way to treat the poisonous sting, she is spreading the word to her neighbors on the South Fork, many of whom travel to Rincon each winter.

     Stonefish, which get their name because of their ability to camouflage themselves, are dangerous in that they secrete potent neurotoxins from glands at the base of needle-like dorsal fin spines that they stick up when they feel threatened. According to Mother Nature Network online, stonefish are the most venomous fish in the world and can deliver fatal stings.

     Ms. Bradley, who owns Paddle Diva, a standup paddleboard business, was paddle surfing with her 10-year-old daughter on a remote reef at low tide when they decided to call it a day due to choppy waters. She slipped off her board, and was trying to heave herself back up when she felt something pierce the bottom of her right foot, which hadn't even touched the ocean's floor.

     "Immediately, I knew it was a venomous sting," said Ms. Bradley, who has been stung by sea urchins before. This, however, felt like a bolt of lightning shooting up her foot, she said. The puncture wounds were bleeding profusely, and though she tried to remain calm for the sake of her daughter, she needed help getting to shore.

     A friend then took her to an urgent care facility, where she waited in agony for an hour until she saw a doctor, who placed her foot in hot water to deactivate the venom, she said. The pain was still intense, but the hot water eased it a bit. The venom, she said, made it into her nerve pathways, which also caused twitching, too.

     For the next five days she rested. A bacterial infection of the tissue inside the foot, known as cellulitis, formed, and she went on antibiotics. When she got home, she saw her general practioner for severe nausea that lasted nearly three days. Once she came out of the nauseous haze, she realized her foot was swelling back up. It was triple its normal size, she said. "I looked like a diabetic 300-pound person," she said.

     At that point, 11 days after the sting, she went to the Southampton Hospital emergency room, where she was admitted.

     Doctors ordered a battery of tests, including X-rays and CAT Scans to look for any foreign bodies in her foot. She went on an intravenous drip of Cipro and Doxycycline. After three days of antibiotics and a contrast MRI that showed no bone infection, she finally began to feel relief.

     "I feel I escaped death twice," Ms. Bradley said, explaining that the secondary infection is often worse than the actual sting. She is most grateful to Dr. Darin G. Wiggins and Alice McGrath, a nurse, in the emergency room, and Dr. Rajeev Fernando, an infectious disease specialist, for the care she received. " Southampton Hospital was amazing from start to finish. They stepped up the task," she said.

     Because Rincon is a popular destination for South Fork surfers, Ms. Bradley has taken to her blog on PaddleDiva.com to educate people about what to do if they come into contact with a stonefish. Online sources, such as Medline Plus, instruct those stung to soak their foot in the hottest water they will tolerate — at least 113 degrees — for 60 to 90 minutes.

     "Had I known to run up to the bar for hot water, it would have been a different story," she said.

Puncture wounds left behind by a stonefish. Gina Bradley