Kim Taia was speaking in the wake of news that scientists are now helping Maori tribes to take testing for the toxin that caused her ordeal into their own hands, to make sure what happened to her is not repeated.
Taia, who had gathered some pipi (a type of clam native to Australia and New Zealand) from Little Waihi Beach on New Zealand’s North Island in 2014, began experiencing a tingling sensation in her lips within half an hour of eating them.
“From that, it progressed quite quickly affecting my face,” Taia told the New Zealand Herald. “My head started to become numb and I was feeling dizzy. I couldn’t speak clearly.”
Despite paramedics not being able to find anything wrong with her, Taia describes losing feeling in her arms and hands, and her head feeling like it was under anesthesia.
The next morning, she was completely paralyzed.
“I woke up and couldn’t move,” she said. “We were [back at the hospital for] a few hours and I was getting weaker and weaker. My breathing was slowing down and I thought I was going to die. I couldn’t breathe. I became panicked by not having any diagnosis for what it was.”
Doctors eventually realized that the shellfish she had eaten was causing something called paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP).
PSP is caused by a toxin produced by some species of microscopic algae. When shellfish eat these, the toxin can remain inside of their tissues, affecting anything that eats them in turn.
The toxin cannot be removed via cooking, and can be found in clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops. It may also bioaccumulate up the food chain, affecting crabs and other species that eat the shellfish.
“I was in [the hospital] for four nights. It was a long, draining process,” Taia said. “I went from someone active and fit to completely paralyzed.”
The toxin responsible, Saxitoxin, acts on the nervous system, paralyzing the consumer. It can be fatal: according to the Alaskan Division of Environmental Health, one milligram (0.000035 ounce) is enough to kill an adult.
The Washington State Department of Health, states that while there is no antidote, if a patient can be kept alive via respirator, once the toxin leaves their system, they may make a full recovery.
Taia completely recovered after her stay in the hospital.
While the populations of the algae that produce this toxin are usually low, during an algal bloom, the amount of algae present may cause nearby shellfish to contain dangerous levels of the toxin. New Zealand’s Toi Te Ora Public Health Department has seen only 45 cases of PSP in the past 10 years, most of which occurred in 2012 and 2014.
Scientists at the Cawthron Institute in New Zealand have given her Maori community rapid testing kits that allow shellfish to be tested for PSP before consumption.
Tim Harwood, a research scientist at Cawthron Institute, told the New Zealand Herald: “It’s well-monitored but there are rare occurrences where people get sick. It’s those we want to pick up on and use this tool to prevent.”