The Hard Way

There are two ways to learn everything: the hard way and the easy way. When it comes to saltwater aquaria, I generally opt for the easy way and try to learn from the mistakes of others. (It's much less expensive and painful!) However, sometimes fate dictates that I, too, must learn my lessons the hard way. "Don't buy mobile, venomous animals" and "Don't believe everything they tell you at the fish store" are two valuable lessons I learned compliments of a Volitans lionfish I owned in my "fish-only" days.

When I selected the beautiful lionfish from the store, I was warned of the sharp dorsal spines armed with venom, but was told that the sting was comparable to a bee sting. Having been stung by bees a few times, I didn't find this particularly worrisome and, after all, I had no intention of letting myself get stung. The lionfish and I peacefully co-existed for months without incident. That is, until one Saturday morning.

I was withdrawing my hand from the tank during regular weekly maintenance when my lionfish attacked me. For no apparent reason, I was skewered on the ring finger of my right hand just above the palm. My first thought of "#%&$@ fish! What'd you do that for!?" was quickly driven out by a more primal and urgent message, "That hurts!" The white-hot pain in my finger came as a complete surprise. This did not feel like any bee sting I had ever experienced. I waited a few minutes for the pain to subside, but instead, it steadily increased. I called the store where I bought the fish for advice. I was not prepared for the answer I got.

"Call poison control," he said.

"What do you mean call poison control? The kid I bought it from told me the sting was like a bee sting," I answered incredulously.

"Obviously, you're allergic," was his only response.

That's when I got scared. I fumbled through the phone book with my left hand and located the number for poison control. The white-hot pain was making its way into my palm and heading for my wrist. I could feel my hand starting to swell. Poison control advised me to soak my hand in as hot water as I could stand and get to the hospital as soon as possible. This was no bee sting! Fortunately, I had someone available to drive me to the hospital. Between the container of hot water in my lap and the tears in my eyes from the throbbing pain in my hand, I couldn't have driven myself.

Unlike my other visits to the hospital emergency room where I sat waiting for hours while those more seriously injured were treated first, I was seen immediately. This immediate attention only reinforced the seriousness of the situation, which in turn, compounded my fear. The only thing the doctor could do was to give me something to ease the pain and watch my vital signs. Thankfully, the shot of Demerol worked wonders and I spent the rest of the day under observation. By early evening I convinced the doctor that I was feeling well enough to go home. (He had been planning to keep me overnight.) As I was signing out, I told him what the guy at the fish store had said about my being allergic. I remember clearly his exasperated reply, "Everyone's allergic. It's poison!"

The lionfish went back to the store on Monday. The swelling in my hand took two weeks to go down. I'd have to say the worst part (after the pain, of course) had to be explaining to co-workers how my pet fish had stung me.

Consider this story a gift, if you will. I had to learn these lessons the hard way.

Reefkeeping Magazine™ Reef Central, LLC-Copyright © 2008