LATE on a summer afternoon not long ago, the water at Lucy Vincent Beach on Martha’s Vineyard was warm, and the toxic jellyfish that had plagued bathers weeks earlier had floated out to sea. Body-surfing in on my last wave, I suddenly felt as if someone had whacked my leg with a lead pipe studded with nails. On the 1-to-10 pain scale we use with patients, I would have called it a 14. When I rubbed the area with my hand, my whole palm stung. Apparently those toxic jellyfish hadn’t all left.
A crowd of passers-by gathered to offer tips from the tainted well of conventional wisdom. “Use ammonia.” “Rub in some meat tenderizer.” “Apply vinegar.”
Soon a small army of bronzed youths in official-looking tank tops arrived carrying enormous medical kits. One poured sterile water on the sting area; another rubbed it with an ice pack. A third worked an alcohol-based anesthetic into the wound. Each treatment made the pain worse.
Eventually our group attracted the attention of a nurse strolling down the beach. A year-round Vineyard resident, she had seen her share of vacation-related medical emergencies. “You’ve removed the tentacle, haven’t you?” she asked matter-of-factly. No one, including the medical-professor patient, had thought of this. She took a piece of gauze and pulled off a slimy, transparent string laced with neurotoxins. It had continued to send those toxins into my leg for the first 20 minutes of my care. They are particularly activated, I would later learn, by distilled water, by mechanical pressure (as from an ice pack), and by alcohol-based topical medicines — all the treatments I had so earnestly been given.
Now the pain began to abate. I drove home and reached for three of the most useful medicines I know: aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol) and the Internet.