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Queensland woman recalls near-death experience after being stung by jellyfish in Koh Phangan in Thailand

Doctors told a young Queensland woman she was going to die after being stung by a box jellyfish in Thailand.

Zoe Cahill, 23, was travelling and training as a yoga teacher in the Southeast Asian country when she was stung at Zen Beach on the popular island Koh Phangan last October.

Cahill said she was swimming less than 50m from shore when she saw white strands in the water and, thinking it was plastic, swam towards the strands.

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She then felt an electric shock through her wrist.

“Within less than a second, my whole body had tentacles around it, and I was just being stung,” Cahill said.

She remembers her body viciously shaking. Her automatic reaction was to swim back to the beach.

“I said to a guy as I was coming out of the water, ‘I’m going to die’ and that’s when I collapsed,” Cahill said.

A group of people rushed to her, one couple performed CPR, while others rushed to get vinegar from a nearby restaurant and called an ambulance.

During her recovery, hearing that many of her scars were mostly likely permanent was hard, Cahill said.  Credit: Supplied

One man later told Cahill that her body was turning blue as the strangers did their best to save her.

“I woke up crying and screaming and all these people were pouring vinegar all over me [and saying] the ambulance was on its way,” she said.

Cahill was rushed to a local hospital, where doctors said her white blood cells were rapidly increasing, and they suspected the venom was travelling to her heart and liver.

She was rushed via speedboat to Koh Samui Hospital where she was given antibiotics, antihistamines and a spray to help heal the wounds that covered her body.

Cahill said because she was still confused, in shock and scared, she initially refused the medication.

“The doctor said really firmly to me and my friend that was there, if you don’t take this [medication], you’re going to die,” Cahill said.

While doctors confirmed Cahill was stung by a box jellyfish, a dangerous species of tropical jellyfish, they don’t know if there were multiple jellyfish involved or just one large box jellyfish.

Cahill stayed in hospital for about 10 days and said it took her about another month to feel more like herself.

“I couldn’t walk for about a week after and that month it was super slow, I was sleeping a lot, waddling around and resting a lot,” she said.

Cahill has remained in contact with a jellyfish expert in Australia, who she regularly updates on her progress.

“She [jellyfish expert] always says to me, ‘I’m shocked that yours wasn’t a fatality’ with all the scars that I have,” Cahill said.

Doctors told a young Queensland woman she was going to die after being stung by a box jellyfish in Thailand. File image Credit: Getty Image

While non-tropical jellyfish are not considered dangerous, stings from tropical species such as the box jellyfish can be fatal.

Between 1999 and 2021, Thailand recorded almost 50 cases of serious injuries and death from box jellyfish.

There’s mixed advice on whether to use vinegar on box jellyfish stings. One historical study found using vinegar inactivates stinging cells, while another, more recent study found using vinegar could do further harm.

Nevertheless, vinegar continues to be the treatment of choice, with the Northern Territory Government, Queensland Ambulance Service and Red Cross still advising to use it on box jellyfish stings.

Cahill said the incident raised concern that there were also no signs around Koh Phangan to warn people about the risk of jellyfish attacks.

Thailand’s Department of Disease Control in 2022 urged local authorities to regularly survey Koh Phangan beaches for jellyfish and put up warning signs in areas where people were at higher risk of attacks.

During her recovery, hearing that many of her scars were mostly likely permanent was hard, Cahill said.

“I remember being so, so, so upset. But then I was like I have no choice but to accept myself and love myself for who I am,” she said.

Cahill has been posting about her progress on her Instagram page, with hopes of creating body positivity for people who have gone through traumatic events.

She’s already been back in the ocean, but said following her incident she was much more aware of the importance of first-aid for jellyfish attacks.

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