Severe stings most often occur when a distance swimmer swims directly into the mass or if someone thinks it's interesting and picks one up on the beach unknowingly. The results are extremely painful and can put a person in shock, so it's important to get medical attention as soon as possible. And back in the summer of either 1959 or 1960, I witnessed a quite serious case of what can happen when these sea monsters come in contact with a man right on the beach in front of our family cottage in Nags Head.
It was in mid-August and the day was hot and humid with just a light sea breeze blowing up the beach from the south. The conditions were perfect for the Man O' War to be pushed to shore from the Gulf Stream and become a nuisance for a few days. My big sister, Then in college, invited several of her old high school friends down for a few days. One of the girls was serious about a young college professor and I can't remember whether or not they were engaged, but all knew was they would eventually marry. I met him several times and loved the opportunity to talk with him since he taught economics but loved the subject's interplay with history. I, of course, was a lover of history and knew this would be a great addition to my learning and it headed me in that direction. But on that day, everyone was on the beach and swimming and in those days there was no notification of changing conditions. Life guards were non-existent and the idea was that most people had enough common sense to be careful and observant around the water.
The young professor loved to swim for distance as exercise and was taking long, steady strokes as he went up and down the shoreline about one hundred yards in each direction. Suddenly, one of the girls noticed what appeared to be a scale model of an old sailing ship, drifting north close to shore. When we realized what it was, everyone starting moving down the beach trying to get his attention but he was concentrating and heard nothing. Alas, it was too late and he swam directly into the creature with the tentacles coming into contact with the right side of his head, shoulder and upper arm. He stopped swimming and stood in the chest high water, looking confused before he came ashore. He was grimacing and groaning as he waded out of the water, then staggered and finally fell onto the wet sand. He was conscious but seemed dazed and big sis told me to run and tell Mom to get ready, that they would bring him back to the cottage.
Now Mom was a Registered Nurse and she always brought her well stocked old Bellevue Nursing School nursing bag with her on trips. And since Dad, a doctor, was back home in Newport News on his weekly schedule, it was up to her to figure out what was needed. I helped her put a plastic cover on the roll-away on the porch that we used when we had a crowd, placed a clean white sheet and pillow on top and was standing at the screen door as everyone came over the beach dune. The young man was walking but needed assistance and when he walked on the porch, Mom placed him lying down face up on the bed. She took his temperature, checked his pulse and blood pressure and used a stethoscope to check his lungs. His pulse was rapid and his breathing was a bit erratic and she chalked that up to the stress and pain.
Next we really got to see her in action as she gave him a shot to calm him, then applied a balm to the places that were very red from the sting, saying it would draw out the poisonous toxins and ease the pain. She left the girls instructions to stay with him until she came back later to check him out, also warning them if anything seemed unusual to get her immediately. She then walked back to the kitchen and resumed her preparation of the evening meal.
Two hours later he was sitting up, free of pain and with all but minor numbness remaining from the stings. By dinner time, he was almost back to normal and had a big appetite. Had that been today, my mother could have never done what she did but those were different times and medical care was minimal on those Outer Banks. In many ways when I look back, I think perhaps we were better off.
So, the moral of the story is pay attention and stay alert when you are enjoying the beach and the beautiful blue ocean. And remember that the Portuguese Man O' War, while not a regular visitor to Nags Head and the beaches usually makes an appearance each summer and I just call him a potentially silent killer. We don't see him coming, but if he does and we come in contact, tragedy can result. No go have yourself a wonderful day.
Just another story from "Summers at Old Nags Head," a different time when it was much different place on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.