JOURNAL INQUIRER / SEPTEMBER 8, 2001

 SW man faces ocean terror
   Man-of-war sting leaves victim with 'pain I never experienced before.'


By Amy Johannes
Journal Inquirer

    As Mark Leavitt stepped into the warm, inviting water, at Myrtle Beach, S.C., last month, images of a shark attack scene from the movie, "Jaws". flashed in his mind.
    But the South Windsor resident dismissed them and swam out chest deep.
    Less than two minutes later, 'as Leavitt floated on his back under the morning sun, it seemed as if his worst nightmare had come true.
    "All of a sudden, I felt something
brush up against me," Leavitt said.
"My back was like liquid fire. I felt
like I was being electrocuted."
    He never saw what hit him.

A shocking discovery

    Leavitt staggered out of the water
for help as angry, raised, red and
white welts appeared on his back
and a portion of his upper arms.
    A lifeguard soon found the cause of Leavitt's agonizing pain--- a Portuguese man-of-war, which left more than a 30-inch mark across, his upper back and shoulders, and marks on other portions of his body.
    "It was a pain I never experienced before," the 45 year old software programmer said. "Call it your worst sunburn times 10. It was a nightmare."
    Lifeguards responded by removing small needles from Leavitt's back, and spraying it with ammonia to neutralize the venom. But the pain didn't stop.
   When Leavitt reached his hotel to alert his wife, Lynn, who was waiting to go for a swim, hotel officials called 911.
    "When I saw Mark stagger out of the water from the window, I just thought he hit a rock or something," his wife said. "But when I saw him, I was shocked."

Poisonous creature

    A Portuguese man-of-war is a floating colony of organisms that typically lives in the Gulf Stream and warm tropical waters. Although men-of-war aren't common near the shore, wind and ocean currents can carry them to shallow waters.
    The man-of-war's tentacles, which are attached to the purple-blue float and can reach up to 65 feet long, contain thousands of nematocysts that fire into victims and discharge venom.
    The sting can paralyze or kill small creatures. Its effect on humans can, include intense joint and muscle pain, faintness, nausea, headaches, and vomiting.
    The sting can be more severe and even fatal if a person is allergic to the venom.
    Even though the summer is winding down, the Leavitts want to warn others of "unseen" ocean dangers.
    "I never thought anything could happen to me in the ocean water," Leavitt said. "I always took that for granted. All people think about when they're in the ocean is sharks. But that's not all that's out there.
    "The ocean is not a swimming pool," he added.
    Mark Leavitt hasn't been the only victim of an ocean creature recently. An Oakton, Va., man died of blood loss from multiple shark bites Monday while swimming off the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in Avon

    


       
                                                                                             Charleston Post & Courier Photo

    A photograph shows some of the wounds Leavitt suffered after being hit     by the Portuguese man-of-war.




N.C. His girlfriend, who lost her left foot and suffered severe wounds to other parts of her body, survived, but has been in critical condition in a Norfolk, Va., hospital.
    Last Saturday, a shark fatally mauled a 10-year-old boy in Virginia Beach, Va.

'One last gift'

    On the way to Grand Strand Regional Medical Center in an ambulance, Leavitt said he felt a fightening in his chest. Paramedics were concerned that Leavitt was experiencing an allergic reaction to the venom and rushed him to the emergency room.
    Lynn Leavitt, who arrived at the hospital in a separate vehicle, feared her husband had died on the way.
    But when the 45-year-old housewife heard he was alive, she rushed to the hospital gift shop and bought him a rose and a beanie baby dog, and stood by his side.
    "I knew this was something that could be fatal," she said. "He was trembling all over. I wanted to give him one last gift. I thought I would never see him again."
    Leavitt spent about six hours in the emergency room where Dr. Steven Law and other medical personnel worked to remove needles from his back and arms. They packed Leavitt in a vinegar solution and gave him morphine for the pain and antihistamines.
He spent the next day lying on his stomach in his hotel room, waiting

for the pain to subside.
   The Leavitts, however, pressed on with their two week vacation and visited Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., before returning home. But the incident remains fresh in their minds.
   "Mark was lucky," Lynn Leavitt said. I'm thankful he's alive. If he had been out any farther in the water, he probably wouldn't be here today."

Calling for changes

    Lynn Leavitt admits she hasn't slept well since the Aug. 23 accident. Her husband, still plagued by pain, is slowly healing. The marks on his back have faded, but doctors say some scars will remain.
    Leavitt isn't out of the woods yet. Because of the amount of toxins his body absorbed, doctors said there's a chance the pain could return and permanently settle in his muscles and joints.
    But the couple said they are hoping for the best.
    The Leavitts, who have lived in South Windsor the last 20 years, said their experience, and the recent shark attacks, show the need for lifeguards and other officials to better inform the public about beach hazards.
    Beach officials need to improve warning systems and signs to make others aware of underwater dangers, they said.
"It's a whole new world out there," Leavitt said, "Unless you know what's in the water you're taking a chance."

  Copyright © 2001 by The Journal Inquirer, Manchester, CT