Hilton Head lifeguard: 'On fire' after multiple jellyfish stings
Myshel Rodenbeck says you might think she’s crazy.
Jellyfish stings make ... a sound?
She thinks hers did — knows it did.
It sounded like crumpling up a plastic bag, she said. Or like the way cellophane wrap crinkles around a gift.
In this case the gift — she would call it a reminder — was empathy.
As a lifeguard on Hilton Head Island, Rodenbeck, 31, treats hundreds of jellyfish stings a year. She’d treated 188 of them between 9 a.m. and noon on Aug. 18 before being stung later that evening. She was stung during a surf swim training exercise. Prior to the swim, some of Rodenbeck’s colleagues asked if they could run on the beach instead — because of all the jellyfish they’d been seeing.
But their bosses at Shore Beach Service told them to get in the water.
Getting stung, said operations manager Mike Wagner, might help lifeguards “empathize” with the people they’re treating. A practical perspective, if not a popular one.
Aside from treating jellyfish stings, the lifeguards help people with heat exhaustion, rescue swimmers and boaters and cart trash off the beach. The busy season, from their perspective, is winding down. Here’s what summer on the island looked like through their eyes.
Shore Beach Service said it hauled about 2,500 recycling bags off the beach this July, a 15 percent increase from the same month last year.
“Could be more people are using the recycling cans than before,” Wagner said. He added that the number of bags can be misleading as some might be completely full or a quarter full when they’re taken.
As for litter on the beach, Wagner said he hasn’t seen an uptick. In terms of bagged trash, there’s been more, and Coligny has the most.
Shore Beach Services hauls about 12 loads — meaning trailers, hauled behind the company’s ATVs — of waste off the beach a day, Wagner told the Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette in June.
Rodenbeck, a six-year veteran, said she’s seen more trash this year, especially at Coligny.
She’s had people come up to her and ask her to dispose of their garbage, and she’s admonished people for littering on the beach.
No, that’s not the temperature — it’s the number of cases of heat exhaustion the beach service addressed between May 23 and Aug. 23.
That number is up by “about 30 percent,” Wagner said from the same time period last year and is the highest in the past five years.
He blames the continuous heat the region has seen this summer — earlier this month, nearby Savannah, the National Weather Service’s closest station to Beaufort County, set a record for consecutive 90-degree days — and the lack of rain.
It’s been so dry and hot that the beach service had to install at Coligny a second blue mat leading from the access point to the beach — because their vehicles were getting stuck in the sand. High tides have pushed up more sand to the access point and, with no rain to pack it down, it has become a bit of a trap.
If you’ve been “physically brought to safety” by a member of Shore Beach Services, you’ve been rescued.
There were 38 rescues between May 23 and Aug. 23. About two-thirds of those were swimmers, Wagner said, with the remaining one-third being boaters. Typical numbers, he said.
It’s important to remember that all rescues don’t involve someone who’s drowning, he said.
His staff practices “proactive lifeguarding,” which you’ve likely seen on the beach. Whistling at someone who’s swum out too far is called a “preventative action.” Swimming out to someone — who didn’t hear the whistle — and verbally warning them they’ve gone out too far is called an “assist.”
It’s not that many stings — it’s not.
There have been more stings in the past couple of weeks — Wagner said it’s been a “late” jellyfish season — and the almost 12,000 stings the beach service treated between May 23 and Aug. 23 is an uptick compared to last year.
But it’s not as bad as 2014, when the service addressed more than 33,000 stings during the same three-month span.
During training, lifeguards are reminded that different people react differently to stings, Wagner said. It’s not uncommon to see kids get stung, walk to the lifeguard stand, grab a bottle of “jellyfish spray” — water and vinegar — hanging from a rung on the stand, spray themselves off and then run back into the water. And it’s not uncommon to see adults cry.
When Rodenbeck was stung on Aug. 18, she’d almost made it out of the water unscathed. Then, the jellyfish wrapped around her right arm.
The scar is still visible on her freckled skin.
The sting felt like a “spark” of pain, almost electrical, she said. And it made a sound.
She thought she was crazy, so she told her roommate about it.
Her roommate, also a sting victim, empathized with her.
She’d heard a sound, too.