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Catherine Mohr: A Love Story... That Begins With A Sea Urchin

Jun 11, 2021

Part 1 of TED Radio Hour Episode A Love Letter To The Ocean

Catherine Mohr shares the story of a scuba diving trip gone wrong, where getting stabbed by a sea urchin transformed her relationship with the ocean... and ultimately led her to the love of her life.

Illustrations of Catherine's story have been created by Natalie Mohr for TED.

My story starts in the northern Galapagos Islands, under 50 feet of water and a big school of sharks.
Courtesy of Catherine Mohr
I'd been scuba diving with a group of friends for about a week, and it had been glorious: manta rays, whale sharks, penguins and, of course, hammerhead sharks.
Courtesy of Catherine Mohr
Today's dive was particularly tricky. The surge was terrible. You had to have your camera rig tight in and your arm out, because the surge kept throwing you into the rocks while you're scanning up for that beautiful photograph.
Courtesy of Catherine Mohr
It was going OK, until ... not OK. Something was terribly, terribly wrong.
Courtesy of Catherine Mohr
I pulled my hand back, and I had long, black sea urchin spines all the way through my gloves, which meant all the way through my hand.
Courtesy of Catherine Mohr
Now, this is bad. I mean, obviously when you have something all the way through your hand, it's kind of bad anyway, but in this case, sea urchins have a venom on them that gives you horrible, painful inflammation.
Courtesy of Catherine Mohr
Adrenaline brain kicked in, and I just yanked the spines out. I don't remember doing it. I just remember thinking, "I can't get my glove off with these in here." I do remember taking the glove off and a big plume of black coming up in front of my face.
Courtesy of Catherine Mohr
Now, in a crisis, I tend to dissociate into little scientists, and I start talking very analytically. Biologist brain now shows up and starts freaking out. "How could all that toxin have gotten into that wound already?"
Courtesy of Catherine Mohr
Well, physicist brain then shows up and very calmly explains, "No, no, no, we're at 50 feet, red wavelengths are attenuated. That's blood — not black. And sharks. So what are you gonna do?"
Courtesy of Catherine Mohr
Well, I cranked my cummerbund down really hard over my hand, and I simply swam away. "Let's let that big old cloud of blood dissipate a bit before we have to surface through all of these sharks."
Courtesy of Catherine Mohr
So when I did surface, my warm-blooded-mammal brain was in an absolute gibbering panic: "They don't feed when they're schooling. They don't feed when they're schooling." All the way up. And they didn't.
Courtesy of Catherine Mohr
Now, it turns out, when you've been stabbed with sea urchin spines, and you're two days away from any medical help, the thing that you've got to do is, unfortunately, cook your hand. So you put it in water as hot as you can stand, and you keep adding boiling water until you think you will go absolutely insane.
Courtesy of Catherine Mohr
Now, it worked — the hand itself did not work so well for several weeks after that, but eventually, fine motor skills returned. All except for one spot, that stayed stiff and painful for weeks after the other things had gotten better.
Courtesy of Catherine Mohr
Now, it worked — the hand itself did not work so well for several weeks after that, but eventually, fine motor skills returned. All except for one spot, that stayed stiff and painful for weeks after the other things had gotten better.
Courtesy of Catherine Mohr
So we scheduled a small surgery for a few weeks out on a Monday. And on the Friday before, I broke my pelvis in a horseback riding accident. So we kind of postponed that surgery.
Courtesy of Catherine Mohr
My broken pelvis and I were now facing six weeks on the couch, and I would have gone absolutely insane if it hadn't been for my friends. Spontaneous parties broke out at my house every night for weeks. I was fed. I was entertained. It was great.
Courtesy of Catherine Mohr
My broken pelvis and I were now facing six weeks on the couch, and I would have gone absolutely insane if it hadn't been for my friends. Spontaneous parties broke out at my house every night for weeks. I was fed. I was entertained. It was great.
Courtesy of Catherine Mohr
That was 21 years ago, and for 19 of those years, I have been married to that marvelous introvert who never in a million years would have approached me under other circumstances.
Courtesy of Catherine Mohr
So this isn't a story about piercings or sharks or boilings or breakings. It's a love story. Now, I could reschedule that surgery, but I didn't need it anymore. When you break a bone, your body scavenges calcium from all the bones in your body, and from the little sea urchin spine that you happen to have lodged in the joint of your finger. So yes, my pelvis is now part sea urchin.
Courtesy of Catherine Mohr
So to biology brain, physicist brain, adrenaline brain, warm-blooded-mammal brain, I get to add "urchin brain," with all of the superpowers that that confers. You don't need to worry, though: that I am not fully human is one of the things that my family loves the most about me.
Courtesy of Catherine Mohr

About Catherine Mohr

Catherine Mohr is an avid adventurer who loves to travel and scuba dive. When she's not exploring far flung places, she works as a global health strategist. She is the president of Intuitive Surgical, which makes the da Vinci surgical robot. She is also an advisor to med-tech startups in the U.K., the U.S., and her native New Zealand.

Mohr has previously worked as a surgeon and an engineer, among other fields. Her interdisciplinary research seeks to discover new technologies to improve patient outcomes.

Mohr received her B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering from MIT, and her M.D. from Stanford University School of Medicine.

This segment of TED Radio Hour was produced by Katie Monteleone and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. You can follow us on Twitter @TEDRadioHour and email us at TEDRadio@npr.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and today, we are spending our time together under the sea.

CATHERINE MOHR: The magic that is under the water, we've only really just begun to explore.

ZOMORODI: This is Catherine Mohr, and over the years, she's worn lots of different hats.

MOHR: I'm an engineer turned surgeon turned global health care strategist.

ZOMORODI: Beyond her professional world, Catherine loves adventure, especially in the ocean.

MOHR: I have been a scuba diver ever since I was in college, and I enjoy exploring new things, which occasionally puts you in danger's way.

ZOMORODI: So that brings us to January, 1997, the start of what turned out to be a love story, though it really doesn't seem that way at first.

MOHR: I had a group of friends who all wanted to get together and go scuba diving and land-exploring in the Galapagos. And it's an area where there's enormous pelagic life, whales and sharks and manta rays, and it's diving like nowhere else.

ZOMORODI: So Catherine and her friends chartered a boat to some of the most remote Galapagos Islands.

MOHR: It was a sunny day, and we were pretty sure we were going to see a lot of hammerhead sharks. And they will congregate in very large schools. So you get in the water, and you just calmly sink down to the bottom. And now you're under the schools, and you can look up and see them all.

ZOMORODI: Wow. You weren't scared at all?

MOHR: I had been diving with enough sharks at that point that it was excitement rather than fear. You know, sharks get a really bad rap. We're not their food. They're not going to come and just sort of randomly taste us. So, you know, my heart rate was fast, but that was excitement. I was on the hunt for the beautiful photograph.

ZOMORODI: So Catherine was there, 50 feet down beneath a school of sharks, and the surge, the back-and-forth movement of the water, was particularly bad that day.

MOHR: Yes. And so the bottom wasn't smooth and sandy. It had some fairly large rocks and a lot of sea life, like sea urchins and things like that, around on the rocks, so that's where I was. And then I got caught in a particularly big surge, and I instinctively flung my right hand out - 'cause I had my camera rig tucked in my left arm - to brace myself against the rock. But I wasn't bracing myself against a rock. I slammed my hand into one of those sea urchins. And I felt the crunch kind of travel up my arm, and I pulled my hand back, and I could see that there were sea urchin spines stuck all the way through my hand.

ZOMORODI: So you were stabbed essentially under water.

MOHR: Yes.

ZOMORODI: What went through your head?

MOHR: It was absolute disbelief. I mean, I'm looking at these things through my glove. You know, I'm not actually looking straight at the skin of my hand, and so it was surreal. It didn't feel like that was possible. It felt like it wasn't my hand.

ZOMORODI: Catherine Mohr continues her story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MOHR: Now, this is bad. I mean, obviously, when you have something all the way through your hand, it's kind of bad anyway, but in this case, sea urchins have a venom on them that - if you've ever tangled with them, you know that a sea urchin spine in you gives you horrible, painful inflammation. So adrenaline brain kicked in, and I just yanked the spines out. I don't remember doing it. I just remember thinking, I can't get my glove off with these in here.

I do remember taking the glove off and a big plume of black coming up in front of my face. And biologist brain now shows up and starts freaking out. How could all that toxin have gotten into that wound already? Well, physicist brain then shows up and very calmly explains, no, no, no, we're at 50 feet. Red wavelengths are attenuated. That's blood, not black - and sharks. So what are you going to do?

So I'm in this cloud of blood, and I really, at an intellectual level, knew that I probably was not in much danger. You know, you think blood in the water, and suddenly it's a feeding frenzy. But no, hammerhead sharks don't really feed when they're schooling like that. But I didn't really want to be in the cloud of blood, and I didn't really want to go up through the set of sharks while I was really actively bleeding. So I used this band that you have on your scuba diving rig, and I slipped my hand up underneath it, and I cranked that cummerbund down really hard over my hand to kind of put pressure and then sort of angled off towards where my buddy was so to leave that cloud of blood behind.

ZOMORODI: But so eventually you have to surface, right?

MOHR: Yes, yes, you're out of air. The dive is done.

ZOMORODI: So how did you do it?

MOHR: So I looked for a not very sharky area, but there weren't any very not sharky areas 'cause we were in this big upwelling in this big school. And yeah, leaving down close to the bottom and swimming up through them and being in free water felt a whole lot more exposed, and the temptation to go super fast is...

ZOMORODI: Yeah, yeah.

MOHR: ...Really high but you can't. So I just chanted, they don't feed when they're schooling. They don't feed when they're schooling. They don't feed when they're schooling - all the way up.

ZOMORODI: Your adrenaline must have been through the roof. So you get pulled into the boat, and you're like, hey, so this thing happened when I was down there. I mean, is there venom in your hand at this point?

MOHR: Well, yeah, there's sort of a slime that's on the outside of the spines. And there were a lot of local ways in which people dealt with getting sea urchin spine stabs because they can get infected, and they can get really quite terrible reactions to them. And we were a good two days away from where I could get any sort of formal medical attention.

ZOMORODI: Oh, wow.

MOHR: And so the guys who were our local guides were, like, super apologetic, but they said, you know, you've got to get that as hot as you can, and if you can do that, you know, we can minimize the possibility that you'll get an infection or a really bad reaction.

So I put my hand in water as hot as I could stand, and I let it acclimatize a little bit. And so once it got to the equalization point, they started pouring additional boiling water into...

ZOMORODI: Oh, my God.

MOHR: ...The pot where my hand was. And so they would bring the temperature up a little bit, and, you know, it would really hurt, and it would acclimatize, and then they'd put more hot water in. And they were just essentially going to go until I freaked out and took my hand out because the more they could do that, the more likely I was to not have any bad effects.

ZOMORODI: Did you - I mean, did it turn you against the ocean in any way? Were you like, this is crazy? This is too dangerous. Were you angry? Like...

MOHR: No.

ZOMORODI: No? None of - nothing like that?

MOHR: No, not at all. No, no, I mean, the ocean doesn't care about you, but it also means the ocean isn't malicious. The ocean didn't do that to me. I wasn't going to feel resentful. I was a guest, and I got hurt, but it wasn't the ocean's fault. That was my fault. No, I went diving the next day.

ZOMORODI: What?

MOHR: You couldn't keep me out of the water.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Oceans cover almost three-quarters of the Earth's surface. More than 80% of that underwater world remains largely unexplored. And while those depths can seem vast and frightening, they're also a place of magic, whimsy, passion and even love. So today on the show, a love letter to the sea. We'll dive under the waves to explore connection and intimacy from the surprising sex lives of fish to villainous snails that will enamor you and a love story, which brings us to the conclusion of Catherine Mohr's run-in with that sea urchin.

A few weeks later, her hand was starting to heal - all except for one spot which stayed stiff and painful.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MOHR: So it turned out, I'd broken off a tip of the urchin spine in the joint itself, and that's why it wasn't getting better. And so the orthopedist says, you know, we should get this out. Nothing too urgent, not emergency, so we scheduled a small surgery for a few weeks out on a Monday, and on the Friday before, I broke my pelvis in a horseback riding accident. Yeah. So we kind of postponed that surgery.

My broken pelvis and I were now facing six weeks on the couch, and I would have gone absolutely insane if it hadn't been for my friends. Spontaneous parties broke out at my house every night for weeks. I was fed. I was entertained. It was great.

But that kind of enthusiasm is sort of hard to sustain over the long term. And eventually it petered down to just one friend who would send me jokes during the day and come and keep me company in the evenings, someone I got to know a lot better during this period of convalescence.

He and I had been friends for about 3 1/2 years at that point and hadn't really ever thought about a romantic relationship. But he was one of the most stalwart people. And our conversations broadened and deepened, and so I developed the most important relationship of my life while I was convalescing on that bed.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MOHR: That was 21 years ago, and for 19 of those years, I have been married to that marvelous introvert who never in a million years would have approached me under other circumstances. So this isn't a story about piercings or sharks or boilings or breakings. It's a love story. It's a love story with a funny little epilogue.

Now I was weight-bearing again, I could reschedule that surgery, get the spine out. But I didn't need it anymore. Turns out when you break a bone, your body scavenges calcium from all the bones in your body and from the little sea urchin spine that you happen to have lodged in the joint of your finger. So yes, my pelvis is now part sea urchin. So you don't need to worry though. That I am not fully human is one of the things that my family loves the most about me. Thank you very much.

ZOMORODI: That's Catherine Mohr. You can go to ted.npr.org to see her full talk, along with beautiful illustrations by artist Natalie Mohr, who also happens to be her daughter. On the show today, A Love Letter To The Ocean. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.