DR. PHILLIPS For most northerners, spending the holidays basking in Florida’s warm weather is a treat. But on Dec. 29, 2015, what was supposed to be a relaxing evening poolside for New York native John Mendez quickly and unexpectedly turned into something serious — anaphylactic shock.
Mendez, a New York Fire Department captain, owns a condo off Sand Lake Road and visits the Orlando area four times each year with his family. While they were down spending their Christmas break, Mendez had a run-in with a horde of fire ants.
“My friend drove in from New York and happens to be a doctor,” Mendez said. “(Our families) decided to go down to the pool, which is walking distance, (but) we decided to drive to the pool. And when we got there, we sat under an awning before we moved our chairs to the edge of the pool, which is surrounded by paving stones.”
Unbeknownst to them, there was a colony of fire ants two feet under the ground nearby. The cracks between the paving stones were infiltrated with fire ants, and when Mendez had his bare feet resting on the ground, the ants crept up and covered his foot.
“The doctor told me what they do is cover and simultaneously inject you with formic acid to try to get you to drop,” he said of the ants. “I’m very careful on the grass; I never expected it to be around the pool.”
As ants covered his foot, he immediately stuck it in the pool — when he pulled it out, it was swollen. Just minutes later, symptoms of anaphylactic shock — a severe allergic reaction that can be fatal — kicked in.
“Within maybe two minutes, I felt my heart beating fast; I felt my blood pressure going up; I felt flushed,” he said. “I had hives all over body, I was very itchy, and my lips got swollen. I felt like someone punched me in the mouth. I also felt tight in the chest and had difficulty breathing.”
His friend’s medical training immediately kicked in; he grabbed Mendez and quickly put him in the car, driving him to Dr. P. Phillips Hospital. By chance, the friend had liquid Benadryl in his car for his kids. He gave Mendez two tablespoons of it on the way over, subsiding the swelling on his mouth.
Once at the hospital, Mendez was assessed in triage and taken back on a stretcher, where he received IV fluids, Benadryl and prednisone steroids. The reaction quickly subsided, and Mendez was out in an hour.
Although he has no allergies and has been bitten by fire ants previously, as a fire captain and paramedic Mendez has treated people with severe allergic reactions. He said the sudden swarm of ants and simultaneous injection of their venom is enough to bring anyone into shock.
“The doctor told me about 100 of these bites from 100 ants will kill someone,” he said. “They won’t bite individually if they’re swarming. It’s incredible how a little tiny ant can bring you down.”
Dr. Antonio Crespo, an infectious disease physician at Dr. Phillips Hospital, said anyone who may encounter such insects — allergies or not — should be aware of their presence and take precautions to prevent such incidences.
“We live in an area where we do a lot of outdoor activities and are exposed to a lot of insect bites,” he said. “Being aware of that and doing proper lawn treatments to try to control the population of fire ants or other insects is very important. If you do get bitten, be aware of the possible reaction and take the precautions; look for medical attention.”
And as for his medical treatment, Mendez planned to visit the doctors who took care of him and thank them personally.
“I wanted to thank them for helping me out,” he said. “I know what it’s like: I’ve been in many ERs taking patients there, and you don’t get any thanks from the job. I knew they had a tough day, too. They actually saved my life.”
Contact Danielle Hendrix at [email protected].