Lionfish sting nearly costs man his finger

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A
dive instructor who was catching lionfish on a reef in West Bay was stung so
badly by one of the venomous fish that doctors told him he could be in danger
of losing his finger.

Aaron
Hunt, who has caught many lionfish since being certified to cull them nearly a
year ago, said the pain was the most excruciating he had ever experienced.

“I
had a burst appendix two months ago, and this was much worse,” he said.

In
the end, he did not lose his index finger, but he did lose all the skin on the
finger down to the second knuckle.

Mr.
Hunt was treated for nearly a week, returning to the hospital daily so doctors
could examine and redress the wound, each time having to remove bandages in a
painful process.

Lionfish
are becoming an increasingly common sight in Cayman waters and the Department
of Environment reports that since early 2008 when they were first spotted in
Little Cayman, more than 1,500 have been caught by divers on local reefs.

Marine
conservation laws, which prohibit divers take anything from the reefs, were
amended to allow for the removal of the lionfish, which have voracious
appetites and can wipe out the marine life population of a reef in just weeks.

Mr.
Hunt said he had been stung a couple of times by lionfish before, but those
were minor stings and, by immersing the wound in hot water, the pain had
quickly eased.

He
admitted that those previous encounters with lionfish may have made him less
careful than he should have been when dealing with the fish. “That emboldened
me. I thought if I got stung, all I would have to do is put in hot water for 20
minutes to an hour and it would be fine,” he said.
Mr. Hunt had been diving with his buddy on Saturday, 15 May at Turtle Reef, between
DiveTech and Boatswain’s Beach in West Bay, around 12.30pm when he was stung
while trying to catch a large lionfish with nets. “I wasn’t too concerned if I
got stung. I’m not saying I was being reckless, but I did go ahead and use my
hand to coax the lionfish into the net,” he said.

Around
6pm, after several hours of keeping his hand in the water, he realised his
finger had begun to blister.

“I
have enough medical treatment to know that, with burns, when blisters appear,
that’s a very serious symptom… so at that point, I realised I needed to see a
doctor,” he said. “At the hospital, they told me they had never seen anyone
come in with a reaction like this before.”

He
was given Lidocaine, a local anaesthetic used to relieve burning and pain from
skin inflammations, and then the doctor removed the dead skin that was already
sloughing off Mr. Hunte’s finger.

Hospital
staff took an ultrasound of his hand to ensure that there was no barb from the
fish’s spine still embedded in the flesh, but found none.

“The
doctor told me that the venom had killed so much tissue in my finger, I could
lose the remainder of my finger, not just the skin,” Mr. Hunt said, adding that
if he had not gone to the doctor when he did, he would have lost his finger.

He
was given a tetanus shot and antibiotics and told to come back the next day. He
returned to the hospital each day for a week until he was given the all clear.

Mr.
Hunt said he wanted others to know how serious a lionfish sting can be, now
that so many divers are catching them. “There’s very little information out
there about lionfish stings,” he said.

Although
he owns a pair of gloves, which can be used to catch lionfish, he was not
wearing them at the time.

Bradley
Johnson, a research officer at the Department of Environment, said the best
advice he could give divers to avoid being stung like Mr. Hunt was “Wear
gloves!”

“The
puncture-proof Hex-Armor gloves that we wear would have stopped the spine from
penetrating the skin and avoided the envenomation. In our licensing talks we
also stress that you should get yourself seen by a doctor if you’ve been stung
since everyone reacts differently to the venom.

“Using
nets with long handles will keep you further away from the fish as well,” he
said.

He
added: “This is a very rare case as I haven’t heard of anyone being stung this
badly before; even our international colleagues that have worked on lionfish
for years haven’t seen a case this bad.

“Most
of the cases we hear about are successfully treated by immersion in
non-scalding hot water and don’t require additional treatment. The hot water
will usually neutralise the venom to the point where you are pain free but that
didn’t happen in Aaron’s case.”

The
Department of Environment is holding lionfish information evenings this month –
on 19 June at South Sound Community Centre and on 26 June at John A, Cumber
School in West Bay. All information evenings start at 6.30pm.

For
more information on the lionfish information evenings, contact 949-8469.

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Aaron Hunt looks on as a doctor removes dead skin from his finger after being stung by a lionfish.
Photo: Submitted
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