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

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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

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