Thursday, June 2, 2011

Home early with bad pushki burns

WARNING: There are some disgusting photos of my pushki burns at the end of this post, if you think they might gross you out, don't look!!

Well, I'm back from the field...five days early to due the worst pushki burns on my hands that I have ever seen. It was a total bummer to have to make the decision to go home early but I know it was the right decision because my hands are no better today than they were yesterday.

Those of you who have worked with Patrick and I in the field probably know that we both react to pushki pretty severely. Pushki is a plant that grows in coastal regions of the North Pacific. It happens to grow particularly well in Kodiak though. It produces a juice that can cause a chemical burn when it comes in contact with skin and sunlight. A lot of people seem to be under the impression that it needs to be sunny for a burn to occur, but I am quite certain that is not true; there just needs to be UV rays. Some people don't react to pushki and some only get a minor rash. People like Patrick and I get pretty nasty blisters and swelling though.

The pushki plants are just starting to come up this time of year so I mistakenly thought I was relatively safe. Unfortunately I now think that the roots produce a more "juice" than the stalks and leaves. I certainly never touched any leaves or stalks on this trip; I know better than that. I think I got burned on our third day of work. I was digging a test pit and took my gloves off for just a little while to pick out small pieces of charcoal. The roots must have gotten me. People also say that if you wash your hands right away, you can stop the reaction. For me that is definitely not true either because I did wash my hands several times that day while I was digging. By that night my hands were starting to feel a little itchy. The next morning I had what looked like a rash on both of my hands and wrists. The thing about pushki burns is that they continue to get worse over about a week and a half before they start to get better.  Because mine always start out just looking like a rash, it's hard to tell how bad they're going to get. So, last week I had no idea that this was going to be by far the worst reaction I've ever had.

As the swelling amd blisters got worse, I was able to do less and less work.  At first I was still able to help dig, then I could still take notes and photos, but by three days ago I was pretty useless. That was a mostly a rest day though so it didn't really matter. The nights were particularly rough though and I would frequently be awake many times during the night trying not to itch. This time my hands actually felt like they were burning too, rather than just itching. The best relief I could get was to put my hands in the cold river water. The day before yesterday was a particularly rough night and when I woke up the blisters and swelling were so bad that I could barely move my hands. I told Patrick I wouldn't be able to work that day and as soon as he saw my hands he agreed. I stayed in camp for the first part of the day alternating between soaking my hands in the river and reading to a good book to keep my mind off the itching. By the early afternoon I had realized that my hands were going to continue to get worse before they got better and I wasn't going to be able to work again before our project was over. Patrick, Mark, and Mary were also thinking that it was time for me to fly home and get to a clinic. I made some calls on the satellite phone and with quite a bit of trouble, my friend Keller, a pilot, was able to arrange a flight home for me (that's a story for another blog post).

I arrived in Kodiak yesterday afternoon. My mom called the clinic to make me an appointment but there were none available. One very nice doctor agreed to see me after his last appointment. I am so grateful to him! He prescribed me an oral steroid and a new antihistamine to help with the itching (I can't take benadryl because it makes me stay awake). My blisters aren't any better today, but this is the first day they aren't worse so I'm taking that as a sign the steroids are working.

Other than all that, I had an amazing time on the Karluk River. I added the two photos at the top to show that we had great weather and I did have an amazing time. No need to feel too bad for me please!

These are some photos from three days ago. The blisters are much worse now but I don't think anyone should see them at the moment; they are really disgusting!

back of my left hand - this entire hand is really swollen

palm of my left hand

back of my right hand


  1. OMG MOLLY! That is grotesque!!! Thank goodness I don't have that reaction. Glad you got some care!

  2. Wow, hope you improve quickly!

  3. Molly don't forget to tell them the blister juices are just as bad as the plant it self. They will make more blisters. Hydrortisone seems to help and if you can take benadryl it does help. the burning is worse then the itch most of the time. I seem to get it from the first time I got it in '73 my first summer here in Kodiak. STAY out of the sun if you have the PUSHKI BURNS it makes it worse. Be Careful Julia