Posted by: Anna | September 14, 2011

Stepping on a Crown of Thorns

I was so excited to finally have my sprained ankle feeling 100%. After almost two months of not being able to walk very far, it was a great feeling to be able to do yoga for an hour, walk for two hours, and stand waiting in line without being in pain. But I rejoiced too soon — I promptly reinjured myself in a much more interesting (and more painful) way.

The “crown of thorns” is a poisonous starfish that lives abundantly in the Pacific. It is typically a little over a foot in diameter, indigo, and covered with spikes all over. I stepped on one. This is not recommended.

Off the coast of Caqalai (pronounced Thangalai), there is a small island that you can walk to at low tide, then snorkel back with some gorgeous spots full of fish and beautiful soft corals. On our second day, we decided to head out to see the tiny island and the snorkeling. As we were walking through some shallow coral to start snorkeling, I stepped on a rock that slipped away under my foot. I then stepped down to stabilize myself, right on the edge of a crown of thorns. In agony, I promptly shifted my weight to my other foot, stepping on the other side of the crown of thorns, thus piercing both sides.

At first I thought maybe it was just a coral cut, which hurts. But this was too intense – stabbing pain in both feet. We were about a 30 minute walk from the main island with the tide coming in, hiding our pathway back. Tommy came over to see what I was yelling about, and he immediately spotted the culprit. In a great deal of pain, we started the arduous (for me) walk back, leaving a trail of blood across the sand and rocks where my foot just bled as we made our way.

One of the staff insisted that what I should have done was flip it over and step on it again and that then the crown of thorns would suck the spikes and neurotoxin back out. Doubtful, and too late and too far, we had to resort to more traditional first aid. We tried with a needle to find any broken off thorns left in my foot. We put antiseptic on it. The pain was pretty incredible, and not going away. I got some advil and put some neosporin and bandaids on, and went to lie down.

Many people have a bad reaction to the neurotoxin from the thorns, but I only had a mild nausea. Tommy and Sarah insist that I was acting “high” all afternoon, but I don’t know if I was loopy from pain or from neurotoxin. I’m just glad I didn’t spend the day vomiting and being in pain!

Thankfully, Sarah was here, with her blackberry with international service. I googled crown of thorns first aid, and learned that we had pretty much done it wrong. First you are supposed to soak it in really hot water to dull the pain – nope, didn’t do that. Then rinse it with saline and leave the wounds uncovered – still nope. I did uncover them at that point. Both feet were very red and swollen, looking pretty nasty. I decided to take an antibiotic (we have a prescription that we carry with us in case of serious diarrhea) in order to stave off infection, which looked like it had already started to set in.

The next morning, still in a great deal of pain, I decided I either needed to leave the island for the hospital or at least call a doctor or nurse in the States to ask for an opinion. We searched but couldn’t find Julia’s (doctor friend in Chicago) or Ellen’s (nurse practitioner friend in Massachusetts) numbers. Finally, I realized that I could google a friend of mine from my time at Home Helpers – Angela, a nurse. I figured it was worth a shot – there is only one boat transfer from the island a day, so I needed to decide if I was going or not pretty quickly. Angela, like the sweet woman she is, answered and patiently and kindly answered my questions and offered advice. She gave me some additional first aid advice and what to watch for to know when I really needed to get to the hospital immediately. I felt a little calmer, and we spent one more day on the island.

Upon our return, we went to the hospital. I was still in pain (a constant refrain in my mind during this time). The doctor, a very kind Indo-Fijian woman, was concerned. She gave me an additional antibiotic, bringing my total to 3000 mg a day. I haven’t taken an antibiotic since I was a kid, if you don’t count the preventative one they give you after Lasik surgery. She said that if the pain was not better in two days, I needed to go back to the hospital again, as soon as possible. She also had the nurse put a dressing on, and told me I was not allowed to get it wet or dirty. No walking in the sand, no showering like a normal person, no swimming off the beach. I asked, almost not wanting to hear the answer, if I could dive (We’d bought flights to Taveuni specifically to dive one of the world’s best reefs). Yay – I was allowed to dive, as long as I did it from a boat and changed the dressing immediately afterward.

However, the restrictions on not getting my feet dirty or wet were a challenge. We went the next day to Taveuni, where we stayed at a small beach resort, where the floors were made of sand everywhere except inside our bure (beach hut). To board the boat to get to the island, you had to walk through about six inches of water. I had to be carried by one of the strong Fijian guys. They took to calling me “princess”, in a nice way. I didn’t get to enjoy the beach or the snorkeling. But at least I had good company, in a beautiful spot, with delicious food (Dolphin offered the best food we ate in Fiji), a bar, and incredibly patient and fun staff. I got to go diving one day on the Rainbow Reef; the corals were truly rainbow and we could see forever through the clear Fiji water.

Ten days after the injury, I’m still in pain pretty often. I can’t stand or walk for very long, and my feet still have some gross, crazy looking wounds. I’m frustrated because I just missed out stuff because of my ankle, and now I’m hurt again. We’ve read that crown of thorns wounds take four weeks to heal, which I’m not happy about. But I guess if you have to heal somewhere, Fiji and Vanuatu (our next stop) aren’t bad places to do it. Tommy has been great, carrying my bags everywhere, and sometimes carrying me when I am really in pain. Sarah did a lot to cheer me up just by being so positive and encouraging, and by keeping me entertained playing cards. I have never appreciated my feet so much.



  1. Sounds awful Anna, so sorry you are hurt! Hoping for a quick recovery for you.

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