A poisonous jelly fish sting can cause a lot more than pain, nausea, and numbness. It can create a story the victim will most probably never forget and a journey to a local hospital many wish they had seen on tape. Unfortunately for the pain, yet fortunately for the story, it happened to me just outside of Malakka, a little historical village in Malaysia, a few hours south of Kuala Lumpur.
What was supposed to be a relaxing and energy-recharging day in the burning Malaysian sun on the beach, turned into an adventurous, exciting, yet worrisome afternoon. Seeing the locals having fun in the slightly dirtier waters, we undoubtedly believed it to be safe. So safe that at some point five of us were all waving our swimming shorts and bikinis around, enjoying the sensational feeling of skinny dipping. No animals to be seen. No see urchins either. Just sun, sea and fun. At least, that’s what we assumed.
Not much later scenes changed. The rest of our group showed up at the beach. Started kicking a little ball around a bit, swimming after it, and splashing in the water like little kids. A few local fishermen in the deeper waters and a lost sea otter reassured the feeling of safety. Little did any of us know that it was jelly fish season (apparently a thing in Southeast Asia), let alone the fact that Malaysian waters had been massively invaded by extremely deadly sorts of jellyfish in recent years.
As we were subconsciously taking turns in collecting the ball every time one of us thought it was cool to kick or throw it far away, the moment was going to come where it was my turn. And so it did. With it being quite shallow where we were and the great swimmer I am, I decided to walk towards the little floating ball. It was when I walked back that I felt a sudden pinch on my lower back. In an attempt to scratch it off, the pain intensified and it spread up further onto my back. That moment I knew it had to be a jelly fish. The creature had spread its tentacles all along my lower back when it floated against me in the wave that was on its way to shore. I urged everyone out of the waters as I scratched the wound on my way out. “Does anyone need to pee? Then pee on his back” I heard a few say. And there I was, behind a big rock on the beach trying to hide from the majority of the group, waiting for a class mate to piss all over my back. What a feeling. Nice and warm, yet terribly disgusting. All I could see was twenty students peeking over to catch a glimpse of what was happening. That moment I knew, this was going to be a story for the graduation ceremony.
I felt fine at first, just a little burning pain from the wound. I asked friends to search what kind of jelly fish it could have been, if there was a hospital nearby, and just assumed I was going to be alright. A local ‘medic’ showed up with a jerry can of what he claimed was “good stuff”, as classmates were searching on what to do. As he poured liters of vinegar over my back, the group gathered around. I was still feeling fine. Suddenly an intense pain kicked in, my feet started to become numb, my arms tingled from my elbows down, as my stomach was throbbing. I knew it wasn’t right and we raced (for Malaysian standards) to the hospital. A little van showed up with the word “ambulance” on it. Guess that was for me. I got in myself, as you do, and assumed I just had to lay down and the ambulance staff would strap me in. I learnt not make to make any assumptions. The ambulance staff refused to close the door and race to the hospital. “Sir, sir, please, selfie first”. And I just thought to myself, I hope this is a hallucination. Doors slammed shut and the guy in the back told me to “just hold on, it’s only 35 minutes”. No injections, no tests, no safety straps or belts, just me, myself, and I trying not to fly through the ambulance, as he touched my forehead and my shoulder and said “sir, you have 38 degrees temperature, it will be okay”. I just hoped the nurses in the hospital were a little more professional.
Little of that was true. I was sat into what seemed like a kid’s wheelchair and rolled into the entrance of the hospital. All eyes on me as locals don’t often see a two-meter tall white and ginger stick rolled into their hospital. The stare of amazement was comparable with when we see a celebrity on the streets in Europe. As if I wasn’t feeling uncomfortable enough. We were asked to pull a ticket and wait for our number to appear on the screen. Guess that’s how emergency works in Malaysia. Only after puking and bleeding my nose dry, I was rolled into what they labeled – written with a permanent marker on a piece of cardboard – the “intensive care”. The only intensive thing in this room was the five nurses circled around my 1.40m bed trying to figure out where to inject the needle for a simple blood test. This was, as you can tell, going very well. At least they spoke better English than the average Dutch person. Truly, this day was full of unpleasant, yet pleasant surprises.
Hours went by, the pain intensified, and the numbness in my hands kicked in to the extent that I spontaneously kept dropping my phone. As much as I tried, I could not move a single muscle from my knees down either, and my feet just looked like they had already given up. The pain ‘flowed’ through my body in phases. First my head and shoulders, then down to my chest and stomach, down into my legs and feet, and back into my head. I could simply feel the poison being pumped through my body with every heartbeat. Unpleasant and scary, to say the least.
After several tests – blood, heart, blood pressure, and kidneys – nurses started an IV and I started feeling a little more alive. Many toilet breaks and short naps later, the ambulance staff showed up at my bed with a bag filled with snacks and drinks. “This is for you, my brother”, they all gave me a fist bump, and left with a smile. All I could think was, why? How is this even possible? People back in the Netherlands would have never done something like that, and if they would’ve they’d make me pay for it.
Once the nurses realized that there were many more patients in the waiting room and they had limited beds, they gave me the results of the blood tests – verbally though – and told me I could, but also had to leave. With a stack of pills in little plastic bags labelled “TAMMIE” (instead of Tommie) I sat on a little wooden bench outside the hospital at 23:30 in the blistering heat. We missed the bus back to Kuala Lumpur, but one of the Grab (South-East Asian Uber) drivers from earlier that day had offered to drive us all the way back to the capital. A 2-hour ride. Just minutes in I realized I had lost one of my AirPods, most probably at the hospital. The driver raced back, ran inside, but returned without good news. I lost one. Oh well, there are worse things in life, I thought to myself.
The driver, besides only having a few teeth, also had Dutch roots and decided not to shut up about our country, let alone his life, how he lost a few friends and family members, wished he was rich and his goal in life was to win the lotter, for the entire journey back to the hotel. He even apologized for the size of his small car a few times. Yet he stopped at a gas station, bought some food, and continued to Kuala Lumpur. Then when we wanted to pay him 20 Ringgit (4 euros, read: 2 meals) extra, he refused to accept it. “My heart cannot accept it. My heart only wants a selfie with you”. And so we took a few more shameless selfies before he waved goodbye and said “you will be fine, my brother” as I stumbled to the entrance of the hotel.
What a way to remember this adventure. Like I said, a poisonous jelly fish sting can cause a lot more than pain, nausea, and numbness 😉