By Amy Johannes
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."
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
Post & Courier Photo
A photograph shows some of the wounds
Leavitt suffered after being hit by the
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
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
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."