Blue Eyes and I watched an episode of the Netflix series ‘Chef’s Table’ a couple weeks ago. I think we began at the end in that I wanted to specifically watch the story about New Zealand chef Ben Shewry, who now runs the kitchen at Attica Restaurant in Melbourne Australia. The show is produced documentary style and this particular episode included beautiful shots of edible native Australian plants that Chef Shewry includes in his dishes at the restaurant. They highlighted gorgeous scenery from Ben Shewry’s childhood home in New Zealand, where rolling green hills are dotted with grazing sheep. There was footage of a beautiful stretch of beach. I was completely swept up into his story, with voiceover by Chef Shewry, telling of a near drowning when he was a child, and it struck a little close to home for me.
After the episode I was left with lingering feelings of fear and respect for the power of ocean waters. That an ocean had nearly claimed the life of this wonderful chef, and also, years later and across the world, had nearly claimed my life. I decided to do a series of paintings of ocean water and above is the first in the series. These paintings have been an emotional endeavor for me as my incident in the Pacific Ocean was horrifying and I thought I would surely die that day.
It was the end of April, 2013 (nine months pre d-day) and we were enjoying a holiday on the Hawaiian Island of Maui. It was our last morning of the vacation and I really wanted to snorkel with some sea turtles. Even though my desire to snorkel scares Blue Eyes a little, he gives in to my rather persuasive ways. There was a beach a short distance up from our hotel where turtles are commonly seen. We had tried to snorkel there the afternoon before, but the surf was just too powerful. We headed out early in the morning and confirmed with a couple that were leaving as we were arriving that there were indeed turtles to see. They said yes, they had seen two very friendly guys, swimming around the reef. I headed straight to the beach nearest the reef and proceeded to quickly put on my gear. The surf looked a little rough, but manageable. I turned around to Blue Eyes and asked him if he was ready… he said he would be right behind me. Blue Eyes is(was) not as adventurous in the ocean as I used to be. I started swimming out and there were lots of gorgeous fish to see. There were also a couple of snorkelers out in the area, so I wasn’t too concerned if Blue Eyes lagged behind. I was surprised at how deep the waters were, so quickly. I kept on swimming, visibility was very good, but I was not seeing turtles. I have a sea turtle obsession.
I swam and swam and could feel the surf above me becoming stronger. No turtles. And then, my snorkel stopped working. I mean it completely stopped working. As I was running out of breath, I swiftly surfaced to realize a few things very quickly. First, I was really far out, really far away from the beach. Second, the surf was crazy strong, huge waves were heading right at me. Three, my snorkel was not going to clear. Four, Blue Eyes was standing back on the beach. He had not even entered the water, he was a speck to me at this point. A very very useless speck. Five, there were no longer any other snorkelers in the area.
My snorkel was broken. I panicked. My breathing became shallow and distressed and I was constantly being pushed below water by the waves and the undercurrent. I was taking in sea water. I looked back to the beach to see if I could swim it without the snorkel. Of course I could swim it, but not in my current panicked state. I needed to be able to keep my head above water long enough to catch my breath and really calm the fuck down. I swam over to the edge of the reef, which loomed a few feet above my head. I tried to grab on to the slippery volcanic rock. Above me, the reef was rough and jagged, but where the waves crashed against it all day and night, it was slippery and as it turned out, covered in sea life. I couldn’t get a good grip and every time a wave crashed against the reef, I went under and then wildly flailed about for something to grab hold of to get my head above water. At one point, while submerged, I had a very clear thought, almost like I was suspended in a bubble and everything around me was in stop motion. I knew at that moment that there was a distinct possibility that I might die right there in that spot in the ocean. In my head, I said “fuck that shit. You can do this, Kat.” You are stronger than this situation. Use your head. I finally found a piece of reef I could mostly hold on to and I tried to get Blue Eyes’ attention on shore. He thought I was waving at him. He waved back.
Tears started streaming down my face. I figured I had two choices. First, to somehow hoist myself out of the water and up a few feet onto the jagged volcanic surface above me, which was really quite daunting. As soon as I felt I had a grip on something, a five foot wave would crash violently against me and the reef. Second choice, calm down, catch my breath, and swim back to shore. I never wear flippers while snorkeling, so I only had on water socks. I figured if I abandoned the snorkel and the water socks, and just kept the mask, I might be able to make it… I might be able to make it and if I couldn’t, I would have nothing to hold onto out there and I knew how deep the water was. I started to panic more and then I felt a pinching and burning feeling in my right leg. I looked down to see dozens of black spiky things protruding out of my leg, mainly around my knee and above it, and there was blood. Blood spilling into the ocean. I had all of about 10 seconds to realize what was going on before a huge wave crashed against me and sent me back out into the waters away from the reef. I swam back to the reef and found my spot trying not to touch the lower part of my body onto anything that might be living. I wasn’t very successful. Many people have asked if I was scared there might be sharks, OMG, NO, thankfully I didn’t think of that!!! Within the three months after my accident, three people were violently attacked by sharks in these same waters off the coast of Maui.
Literally out of nowhere, a blonde woman with an accent (my guess Swedish or Finnish or Dutch) swam up to me out of nowhere. I honestly do not know where she came from as I had not seen her until she was upon me. She was treading water between waves, but she also had a working mask with snorkel. She yelled above the crashing surf and asked if I was alright. Of course I answered “no.” I yelled at her that my snorkel was broken and I was having a panic attack and could not catch my breath properly, at least not enough to swim back to shore. She grabbed my mask and snorkel from around my neck and tried to clear it, with no luck. She said it was worthless now, which I kinda already knew. She said she would hold my hand while we swam back to shore together. I was still scared. I told her in my current state, with no snorkel, I didn’t think I could do it. She quickly handed me her mask and snorkel and after I had it securely on my face and was breathing more deeply and slowly, she grabbed my hand and in a split second, we were swimming back to shore. She held my hand the entire way, even though I could swim fine with the working snorkel, but it was comforting to know someone cared enough about another human being to make sure she didn’t lose touch with me until I was safe. She was a very skilled swimmer.
As soon as we arrived at shore, I handed her her mask and snorkel and thanked her, and she was off. Blue Eyes was standing in front of me looking down to my legs with the most horrifying look on his face. I looked down to see dozens of spiky sea urchin spines anywhere from one to four inches long sticking out of my right leg around my knee. At one spot on the inner side of my knee, there were at least 20 sharp spines in one small area the size of a pencil eraser. The rest of the spiky sea urchin spines were spread about the rest of my knee and the leg area above it. At one point I counted up to 65 spines. I had no idea what to do and started trying to sweep the spines away, but they were breaking off, not coming out. I tried pulling them out, but it didn’t work. Most of the spine would come out, but inevitably some part was left in. My left knee had a coral wound the size of a half dollar and was bleeding. My right shin from just below the knee was covered with blood and dripping all down my leg and foot so it was difficult to tell what was going on there.
Blue Eyes brought the car around and we headed back to the hotel. I never got out of the car. The valet staff opened my door and I started to put my right foot out and they suggested I stay in the car. Blue Eyes inquired about the nearest emergency clinic, which thankfully was only about a mile away. While Blue Eyes was getting directions, the head of valet brought me down a bowl filled with vinegar water and some wash cloths and suggested I douse the sea urchin spines with the vinegar water on the way to the clinic. I was soon surrounded by a half dozen valet guys sharing their surfing/sea urchin stories with me. They called the sea urchins Wana (pronounced vah-na) and said they can be quite painful, but not poisonous, but they had never seen so many punctures on one person. Interestingly enough, no one mentioned the bloody coral wound because you couldn’t really see what was going on, other than a lot of blood. We all were more interested in these horrible looking black spiky sea urchin spines embedded in my leg. The area around all the punctures was now turning purple, as if the spines were filled with ink, which in fact, I guess they kind of are. My leg was also swelling and starting to become quite painful.
We arrived at the urgent care, which was new and beautiful and EMPTY. I have never seen that before. The nurse proceeded to take down info for my chart. The doctor arrived and she was a gorgeous Hawaiian woman that could have been a model and she was wearing a designer dress and Louboutins!!! I want that job. :). They pulled out the sea urchin spines as best they could, but they were MUCH more concerned with the coral wounds. Once the blood was washed away, it was obvious that the coral wound on my right leg was quite substantial. It was approximately seven inches long and two inches wide, and deep with scrape marks all around. They cleansed it with a soapy wash over and over. They gave me ibuprofen for the swelling where the sea urchin wounds were. At this point, most of my leg was bright red with purple dots all over it. They said the sea urchin spines deposit a small amount of venom and a barb of the spine stays in under the skin and is painful, but eventually (after weeks) the body will break it down and there will be no lasting affects or scars. It took six months for that process to finally be over. They said if I wanted to roll a cold, unopened can of soda over them, it would help to break down the barbs and they would heal faster, but they said it is very very painful. Their concern was with the coral wounds. They reminded me that coral is a living organism and that if there were pieces of coral left in the wound, it could become infected. That I should watch for the signs of redness, and the skin around the wound turning hot to the touch. Otherwise, just treat it with antibiotic ointment and wrap it in bandages and gauze to protect the wound. They gave me an antibiotic specifically for this kind of thing, and sent me on my way.
We returned to our luxurious hotel where we had booked for the day, a private cabana at the adult swimming pool. We had a red-eye back home late that evening. Although I was being waited on hand and foot by the entire pool staff, and also given numerous stories about sea urchins and coral wounds, I was in a great deal of pain. I don’t like to take heavy duty pain killers, so stuck with the ibuprofen. We returned home on our red eye with a big guy sitting behind me in first class snoring so loud I thought I would scream, even the fight attendants were intrigued by this guy and usually they ignore most everything. With the pain and the snorer, I got no sleep. When I was finally in my own bed, I think I slept for 10 hours straight. It became almost impossible to bend my right leg as the sea urchin stings were painful and everything was swollen. I tried to keep off my leg. We returned home on Thursday morning, and by Sunday, I had a raging coral wound infection. My doc was out of town for the month of May, so I was relegated to another doctor who seemed ultra paranoid. I am here to say, I am lucky I got the ultra paranoid guy because he had me coming into the office every day to check the wound. They believed the coral wound might be infected right down to the bone (but it wasn’t). Two doses of antibiotics (at the same time) had really not accomplished much in a week. He wanted to check me into the hospital. I HATE hospitals, so he told me if I was to stay at home, I must stay completely off my leg except for bathroom trips and doctor office visits each day. They amped up the antibiotics (which gave me a whole host of other symptoms and upped my trips to the bathroom significantly) and prescribed me burn cream to apply throughout the day to the infected wound. I was bedridden, and then when I got up to go to the bathroom, I had the most intense pain in the wound as soon as I set my foot on the floor, like someone was stabbing the wound with hundreds of needles. I was also developing this horrible and debilitating pain in my knee as well (where approximately 20 sea urchin spines went in). I thought maybe that area was infected inside, or the level of damage to the tissue was taking some time to heal. The doc immediately sent me in for an MRI thinking I injured my knee on the reef and I probably had a torn meniscus. The most infuriating part of all of this… we were due to leave for my 50th birthday trip to Paris four weeks from injury, and I had booked us a third floor walk up!!! The MRI did show a torn meniscus, but most likely not from the snorkeling accident. Thankfully no immediate surgery.
Miracle of miracles, with a positive attitude, heavy meds, and the loving care of Blue Eyes (he worked from home every day and took me to many doctor appointments as I couldn’t drive, and he basically never left my side), I completely healed by the time we left for Paris. I mean, truth be told there were still numerous little black and purple dots all over my right leg, but the pain was gone. Even the tissue around my knee healed and didn’t give me any trouble on our approximate 85 miles of walking around Paris. That trip to Paris with my three boys was the best trip I have been on to date.
At this point, more than two years later, you can barely see the coral wound scar on my right shin… in a certain light, you can see the long scrape marks, but honestly, even when I point it out to people, they can’t really see it.
In the end, I am a survivor, and I believe I have a guardian angel who just showed up that day in the water along a reef in Maui, Hawaii. Nine months after the accident, on discovery day, I quietly cried and said to Blue Eyes, “so three months after I nearly drowned, after you nearly lost me forever, after you nursed me back to health, you still felt like you needed to have secret horrifying quickie sex with this woman knowing it would devastate my already fragile world if I ever found out?” And he whispered, “yes.” I went into shock. I know there was nothing that was going to stop him from giving in to his addiction until he was caught, but it still hurts to think about how much more powerful his addiction was than his love for me.
You know, I never saw that addicted person in Blue Eyes. I never knew the man that slept with those women, hated himself so much that he abandoned everything good, to be bad. He hid that guy very very deep. I am grateful he is changing. I am thankful he wants to be the good guy I saw in him all along.
I have not been snorkeling since that fateful day. I am not sure I will ever want to again.
Off to paint green ocean waters.