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Cautionary Tale

Updated: 3 days ago

Last July, I experienced the worst surfing accident I’ve ever witnessed in my 55 plus years of surfing. Unfortunately, it was up close and personal as it happened to me. Consider this a cautionary tale, intended to help you prevent injuries and to navigate the medical process, avoid complications, potentially massive medical expenses, and damage that can last a lifetime.

Not long before my accident, I joined Wahine Kai because I wanted to find more local surfer friends, but also because I had promised myself I wouldn’t surf alone anymore. I’m 61 and grew up surfing at San Onofre with my family. Over the years, I’ve seen my fair share of ambulances going into and out of San Onofre, and I’ve had a few injuries myself.  After more than 55 years on a surfboard, many years talking story with surfers far more experienced than myself, and especially after reading that a pro surfer had died recently from a severed femoral artery, I sit astride my board, humbled in Mother Nature’s presence. I am bold, but cautious. And I think I’m better than I really am.

On this occasion, thanks to my new policy to never surf alone, I was flanked by my big brother on the left, and my cousin on the right, each barely in earshot.   Another Wahine and lifelong friend, Laurie Joyce Calderon, was also surfing with us. After riding one wave, Laurie had the good sense to paddle back to shore. The waves were about four-foot faces, steep, fast and intimidating. I wish I had listened to my instincts like Laurie did. Trust me, it takes a lot to get a badass ski patroller and lifelong surfer like Laurie to paddle back in! I’m no braver; just not as smart. But my family was there for our beloved Browning Saturdays, we were having a ball, it was a beautiful day, and I was high on life; as a result, I had a serious case of FOMO and stayed in the water.

We were at Brookhurst Street in Huntington Beach; some of us were surfing, some boogie boarding. Since my accident, I’ve learned from two very experienced local surfers (including Cathy Betts Young and a big wave surfer), that they won’t surf Brookhurst because it’s too dangerous.  Apparently it’s worse at low tide when the shape of the sand bar makes the wave rear up suddenly like a grizzly and pitch you forward with the lip. Unfortunately, we were out at low tide. My instincts were telling me to go in. Ironically, that very morning, as I put my new skegs (“fins” for you younger surfers) into my board, I wondered, “Why are these new skegs so sharp?” They’ve gotten so much sharper and thinner and are now made of rigid plastic that’s often not sanded down. Instincts are amazing, but so far in this story, I had ignored mine twice. Had I put the old skegs back in, or filed the new ones down, my injury wouldn’t have been as severe. And to top it off, it was the one day all year I didn’t wear my booties, which will become relevant as this story unfolds. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. 

This time, I took off frontside on a steep green left, and I realized too late that it was going to close out. I usually try to follow all the safety rules when falling: push away from my board, go at least a foot or two under water, stay under an extra few seconds to let the board settle, and protect my head with both hands when resurfacing. If it’s shallow, I fall like a pancake or do a belly flop. And if I step off, I bend my knees and roll. I know someone who snapped an ankle stepping off in shallow water. But I digress. It was such an awkward fall that I landed flat out, parallel to my 9-foot tri-fin, and the board got sucked up into the breaking curl. When the wave crashed down, the board came with it, skegs first, slicing my foot wide open.  It felt like I was hit by a white-hot knife and a hammer at the same time. The nerves in my foot still twitch when I think about it. The gash was both shallow and deep:  superficial, so “only” a centimeter deep, but under the skin, laterally, it had cut from my ankle bone down to the sole of my foot, as cleanly as if it had been cut by a knife.  It more or less skinned my foot.

When I finally mustered up the courage to pull my foot out of the water and look at it, there was a wide, triangular flap of skin exposing a big red patch of hamburger. I’m embarrassed to admit I panicked, but not as badly as I would have had it been spurting blood. On some level, I knew it hadn’t hit the artery and that I’d be ok, but I was scared about getting back to shore with a gaping wound and a lot of rough white water. (Read: pain!) Thankfully I could touch the bottom at this point. I was told later by multiple medical professionals what a miracle it was that the skeg missed my arteries, tendons, and ligaments by millimeters. I didn’t feel lucky then, but I know now that it could have been much worse.   I immediately screamed to my cousin Tom, who said he thought I was just bragging about the last wave I caught, so he waved me off with a “Yeah, yeah!” (Trash talk means “I love you” in our family!) Then I called out to my big brother, Steve, a chiropractor who remembers his anatomy classes. He caught a wave to me, and with his ever so calm demeanor, said, “Oh, this is just a superficial laceration. You’ll be fine.” A much needed (and intentional) understatement at the time. I suspected he might be downplaying it, but chose to embrace it, and it calmed me right down.

Steve had me elevate my foot by sticking in up the air like I was doing water ballet. I hugged his boogie board to my chest while he dragged me in, making me laugh to keep my mind off of it, in his usual style. By then, Tom had paddled over and was juggling both his surfboard and mine in the waves.  Even with this odd spectacle, the lifeguards didn’t see us, and were still in the tower when I got to shore. Sometimes you really are on your own out there, especially on a crowded summer’s day, when the lifeguards are very busy. Someone had the sense to keep me on the wet sand, rather than get dry sand in the wound. A good start! Despite it all, I wasn’t in pain. I remember marveling at the time, that had I stepped on a sting ray, it would hurt more, but the adrenaline was doing its job, and I knew the pain was on its way.

The very young, but sweet, lifeguard took one look, and said, “Oh my GOD!” Not much in the way of bedside manner, but I was calm by then. From there, the lifeguards were terrific, put pressure on the wound and drove me to my car. At this point, the pain was hitting hard. My awesome family kicked into high gear, drove me to nearby Hoag Hospital, kept me company, and kept me laughing for three hours in the ER waiting room. While Hoag is a very highly rated hospital, they did a pretty abysmal job in this case, which was surprising in light of the fact that a few employees told me they saw this type of injury several times a week. The ER doctor said she would wash the wound aggressively, but I realized later that she never did. (Remember: you are in no condition to advocate for yourself in this situation. My cousin was there, but stepped out for the stitching.) She sutured the wound, gave me some antibiotics and sent me home.

In less than two weeks, I had developed an infection. I didn’t realize an infection was brewing because I was on painkillers, which mask a fever, and the wound didn’t seem terribly red. I had even been to two doctors, including a foot surgeon, with my concerns of infection and both assured me it was not infected. I sent a photo to my bestie, two days later, who was curious. She took one look at it, burst into tears and said, “Get to a wound care specialist, now!” I had never heard of a wound care specialist! Hoag certainly didn’t advise me to follow up with one.  The wound care doctor took one look and said, “You’re going straight to surgery. Don’t go home first to pack”. He started texting surgeons right there from his exam room. I finally got really scared and pictured myself without a left foot. His nurses helped me wipe my tears and I was admitted to the hospital, and put on an IV drip of antibiotics. Were they the right ones? I don’t know. I still wasn’t even told that they had taken a culture in the ER and had results! God only knows if they even looked at them.

The surgeon removed a muscle and some dead tissue and I was hospitalized for a few days. She said she “fire-hosed it with antibiotics and scraped it with a spoon.”  (Yes. Ouch. This is what caused the nerve damage.) She also told me that I was about two days from losing my foot. All because they didn’t thoroughly clean the wound or put me on the right antibiotics in the first place. Good lord, what an ordeal. And it was all unnecessary. 

My recovery went from five weeks to almost three months non weight bearing. Let me tell you, that’s a lot of time on crutches. It was much longer before I could return to working, exercising, skiing or surfing.  As a result of the infection, I now have nerve damage all the way up into my ankle, but I’m managing. I went on my first surf outing over Mother’s Day at San Elijo with Wahine Kai. I did OK, and was lucky enough to catch one of those long, green, frontside roller coaster dream waves you remember for a long, long time. It felt amazing to be back in the water.  Here are a few lessons I learned, along with some basic preventative tricks to avoid complications:    When surfing, trust your instincts and check your FOMO (and ego) at the door. “He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day.” If it looks and feels dangerous, consider sitting it out. Know your abilities.  Plan for the unexpected, because something will likely happen if you surf long enough.  Become a lifelong student of conditions. Know the break, and analyze the conditions for a few minutes before you paddle out. Learn how to recognize a rip. Surf near a lifeguard if you can. Ask the locals and people who have just gotten out of the water. They’ll likely tell you if it’s dangerous. Know and follow surf etiquette! It’s there for your safety and others’!  (As well as for aloha!) New surfers don’t know what they don’t know. If a more experienced surfer corrects you out in the water, don’t take it as a slight. Thank them, take note of what they said, and pay it forward. Trust us on this. Don’t surf alone.  Don’t surf at Brookhurst.  Have your medical insurance info in somewhere in your car, not just in your wallet, since we know it’s not safe to leave your wallet in your car. Know in advance which hospital takes your insurance. It’s not always the closest hospital. And avoid Huntington Beach Hospital at all costs, per my doctor and many others.    If you get hurt: Bring someone with you. Be prepared to advocate for yourself. Don’t trust that they always know what they’re doing in the hospital, especially in the ER.    If you think you have an infection or problem, don’t doubt yourself. If you have to, get multiple opinions. Take notes and keep records of each consultation.   Do a quick google search to find out what antibiotics are typically required for an ocean injury. If you haven’t been prescribed what’s recommended, don’t be afraid to bring this to your doctor’s attention.  

Here are some of the mistakes the hospital made:   On my initial visit, they said they would wash it aggressively. They didn’t. I didn’t notice at the time because I was on Norco. Although my cousin was there, he stepped out for stitching because it was crowded and he assumed, naturally, that I was in good hands. If possible, have someone stay with you the whole time! Insist on it. In addition to not thoroughly cleaning the wound, they didn’t use nearly enough stitches, so it didn’t heal well. (I had almost triple the stitches after surgery.) They didn’t culture the wound and put me on only one antibiotic. This was one of the most damaging things they did. After a quick google search, I discovered that the National Institute of Health recommends three different antibiotics for an ocean injury. Although the water may look clear and beautiful, it’s actually teeming with bad bacteria. Additionally, even a clean home can be a petri dish. This setback resulted in tens of thousands in medical bills, months off of work (lost wages), permanent nerve damage, and the potential for additional ankle problems and surgeries in the future. A little research on my part might have alleviated this major oversight.   Take photos and document everything at each doctor visit. Let the doctors see that you are taking notes without acting litigious. Sadly, lawyers have told me that even though this case is fairly easy to prove, it isn’t worth enough money to pursue.  All told, even after insurance, it cost me well over $20k.  I now have permanent damage and will have pain and impairment for a long time.    

On a happier note, I discovered that I have an amazing support system. While I try to be helpful and supportive when my friends are in a bind, it was a sweet surprise when some lovely people I hardly knew, like Anita Rivera, stepped up. Be that person! Wahine Kai hosts safety/rescue courses occasionally so you can learn how to rescue another surfer without endangering yourself or the other person. I highly recommend that you take the course! This is one way to “be that person”. There’s a lot more to rescue and injuries than you might think. Also, those lifeguard towers are far apart; it’s easy for them to miss you.  If you’re rescuing someone, try to stay calm and focused. They’ll feed off of you.    Consider buying flexible skegs. How much performance do you really need? The hard ones don’t provide a very noticeable difference. At a minimum, consider filing the sharp edges down a little.  A single fin board (and/or a foamie) might be a safer option when the surf is rough.   Finally:   Again, this is a cautionary tale. While surfing is amazing, it can also be dangerous! A little planning and forethought can alleviate a lot of pain and aggravation down the line.   Above all, respect Mother Ocean. As you well know, sometimes she’s in a pissy mood and will stomp you just for kicks.    Afterthoughts:  Shortly before my accident, I had read that a young woman in San Diego wiped out, severed her femoral artery and passed out in the water within twenty seconds. Luckily, there was a US Marine right next to her, who knew how to apply a tourniquet correctly. He used a stick to tighten her leash around her leg and slow the bleeding. Thanks to the quick thinking Marine, and after extensive surgery, I’m happy to share that she survived.

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