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Science & Medicine

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

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
My story starts in the northern Galapagos Islands, under 50 feet of water and a big school of sharks.
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
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.
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
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.
It was going OK, until ... not OK. Something was terribly, terribly wrong.
/ Courtesy of Catherine Mohr
It was going OK, until ... not OK. Something was terribly, terribly wrong.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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?"
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, 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?"
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
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."
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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. 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 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.
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
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.

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 Foundation, 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.