Our Memorial Day began pleasantly with a drive south to the Florida Keys where our aging sailboat is moored in Florida Bay. Once onboard my husband motored to a small mangrove covered island, one of our favorite photography spots.
We’d visited several times in the past, exploring the depths of the red and black mangrove woods to photograph tropical birds that roost there. On previous trips we spied on great white egrets and their young tucked in stick woven nests high in the tops of waving mangrove branches.
On this visit we found at least ten active nests of double-crested cormorants. Choruses of peeping chicks greeted us. Anchoring and paddling to the prop-root covered shore in our small dingy, we began a slow and careful trek to the island’s interior. We moved quietly, respectful of the nesting birds. Climbing gingerly from root to root while hanging onto slender tree trunks or carefully stepping between the numerous pencil-like breathing tubes, or pneumatophores, of the black mangrove that protruded from the damp marl floor we finally positioned ourselves behind the cormorant’s nests. White guano covered everything: nests, branches, tree trunks, and forest floor around the rookery making our surroundings more than unpleasant. Getting a clear shot of a nesting cormorant seemed nearly impossible due to jungle like vegetation and the 18-20 foot height of the nests. Only occasionally would a tiny beak pop above a nest’s rim.
After a few captures, we proceeded inland. As I grasped a tree trunk for stability, instantly a searing pain shot through my palm, a sensation much like plucking a hot coal from the fire. “Ahh! What is that?” I cried. There on the trunk sat a seemingly innocuous hairy gray inch-long caterpillar.
The pain intensified. Overwhelmed by the need to get to the shoreline and plunge my hand in saltwater, I forged ahead of my husband. The water felt cool, yet brought no relief. Once back on our boat I realized that the poison had begun to spread. My palm had become red and swollen and now my thumb felt on fire. The way back home demanded patience and endurance. First, we had to ask another boat to move so we could back away from the island. The winds had picked up and become contrary, so the trip back to our mooring presented challenges. As the poison spread, finger by finger along with red trails of inflammation, I soaked my hand in a bucket of saltwater and prayed. Deciding to head home instead of seeking assistance we found the highway blocked by Memorial Day travelers and single lane traffic due to bridge construction. Meanwhile, my whole hand continued to burn with unbearable crushing pain. It felt cold, but it wasn’t, and my joints ached deeply as the intense hurting came in waves, yet I knew I would be okay.
By the time we reached home, about five hours after being stung, my entire hand had swelled and my wrist ached as well as the muscles of my forearm. I went straight to the Internet and learned that I had been stung by a puss caterpillar, the most poisonous caterpillar in the United States. I also discovered that immediately applying scotch tape to the wound might extract some of the poisonous spines, so I tried that even though so much time had passed. Online accounts from other victims said that a poultice of grated ginger and potato brought relief. Quickly, my husband prepared the vegetable mash and applied it to my hand. I kept that on all evening, changing it when it began to dry. All throughout the evening I felt so restless that I couldn’t sit still, so I walked around the neighborhood. About 12 hours after being stung the pain eased slightly and amazingly I fell asleep. When dawn awakened me, all of the swelling had disappeared. Although I felt bits of soreness come and go during the morning, by noon all pain had left. My hand, however, bore the brand of the caterpillar’s spines.
When reading of some of the severe symptoms that other people have suffered, such as swollen glands, shock, fever, muscle cramps, and pain lasting four to five days, I am so grateful. I know that God heard me and answered my prayers.