SHANNON LEONE FOWLER was travelling in Thailand with her fiancé Sean when he was stung by a box jellyfish. She describes the tragic events of that day and their traumatic aftermath
We were holding hands, walking back to our cabana on Sunrise Beach. The tall palms lining the edge of the shore were motionless; the sea was calm. Darkness was starting to fall, though it was still warm and sticky. It was like every other evening on Ko Pha Ngan in Thailand. We were planning a quick shower, then drinks and dinner. We knew we were spending too much money on food, but had decided not to worry about our finances in paradise.
Outside our cabana, Sean grinned and flashed his dimple as he put down his glasses on the porch – an invitation to wrestle. I hesitated; I knew that I had no hope of winning. But I kicked off my flip-flops and wrestled all the same, lost badly and was pinned to the ground. Soft white sand stuck to my coconut-scented skin, still oily from a massage on the beach that afternoon. I was not a good loser and threw sand at him as he disappeared inside.
I headed straight for the ocean to rinse off. Sean reappeared and made his way to the shore, but he couldn’t see where I was without his glasses. I took off my wet vest and threw it at him. He waded over to me laughing and I hugged him and circled my legs around his narrow waist. ‘You didn’t have to throw sand.’ I made excuses. ‘I was just playing…and I was losing.’ ‘Yes, you were losing.’ He paused and I felt guilty for being so immature and apologised.
He held me in the waist-deep water as I wrapped my legs tighter around him. We kissed and I could taste the salt on his tongue. I felt something large and soft brush against the outside of my thigh. I yelped. Sean had always been afraid of sea creatures, particularly sharks, and asked what it was. I was studying to be a marine biologist and knew how unlikely a shark attack was, particularly in Thailand.
‘I just felt something,’ I began, and hadn’t finished the sentence when Sean flinched and dropped me, running through the darkening turquoise sea towards the beach. His movements were urgent and awkward, his elbows held high, his fingers splayed.
‘It’s all over my legs…’ he sat down on the wet sand. I bent down in the fading light and could barely make out a faint red welt rising on his ankle.
‘It’s probably a stingray.’ Whatever had bumped me in the water felt substantial. Other than the small welt, I couldn’t see any marks on his legs. I’d been with people stung by stingrays before and seen how excruciating it could be. So I wasn’t surprised when Sean said, ‘My head feels heavy. I’m having trouble breathing. Go get help.’
‘Come with me,’ I said as I looked at him sitting at the water’s edge.
‘I can’t.’ Sean started to sink down on to his elbows in the sand. ‘The key is in your shoe.’ It was the last thing he said as I turned to go.
There was a bar several hundred feet away, but I was topless. As we were right in front of our cabana I ran inside, peeled off my wet shorts and threw on a thin purple sundress. I didn’t realise Sean was dying. By the time I ran back out he had collapsed face-first on to the sand. I ran to him but it was difficult to turn him over. There was a brief sound of an intake of air, which was reassuring because I thought he hadn’t been able to breathe with his face in the sand.
I rushed to the bar, which was crowded with tourists. ‘My boyfriend’s been stung. He’s having trouble breathing.’ I was having trouble breathing myself.
A number of people followed me from the bar and when we reached Sean he had no pulse. A young
Sunrise Beach, Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand, where 25-year-old Sean was stung. Far left: Sean in 1999. Above right: Sean and Shannon, 28, in China, 2002