Jeff Harris was on a beach in The Outer Banks, N.C., with friends, kicking a soccer ball in the surf. Diving for the ball in shallow water, he hit his head on the sand with such force that he couldn't move. He kept trying to lift his head but it became so tiring that he just let it dangle in the surf. He eventually passed out.
A nurse sitting on the beach nearby administered CPR, even after she was told to give up because he had no pulse. She revived him, however, and he was airlifted to a nearby hospital where he learned he had fractured his sixth vertebra. Harris, 30, is now paralyzed from the neck down. "That nurse was just hanging out with her family and said she was taking pictures of me because she thought I looked hot, running around on the beach," Harris says. "She may actually have one of the last pictures of me as a walking person."
Harris is not alone. Jesse Billauer, 34, was surfing in Malibu, Calif., riding a wave into one-meter-deep water when he was thrown into a sandbar, severing his spinal cord. Chad de Satnick, 36, was riding a wave in Cape May, N.J., when he hit shallow water, flew off his board and into the sand, fracturing his sixth and seventh vertebrae. Patrick Durkin, 59, was body surfing in Ocean City, Md., when he was caught unexpectedly by a wave close to shore. He rode it in but was thrown into a wall of sand that broke his neck. The list of bathers with spinal injuries goes on.
Although no one seems to know why so many people are injuring themselves in the water, researchers in Delaware are at least trying to figure out when—that is, are there times when it's more likely to happen? Perhaps when the wind is blowing in a certain direction or the waves are a certain height. If they can predict when these injuries are more likely to occur, they can warn people about going into the water.
Paul Cowan, who heads up the emergency room at Beebe Medical Center in Lewes, Del., decided to study the issue after noticing that surf-related injuries came into his emergency room in waves. On some days there would be no surf injuries whereas on others there would be 12 or 13. The largest number was 25 in one day. "It was the episodic nature of the injuries that caught my attention," Cowan explains. "I always wondered, what's different on that day than the day before or after?"
He wanted to know if there was something going on with the water that caused these precipitous spikes. He teamed up with researchers at the University of Delaware, and for three years they have been collecting data on the number of surf injuries on five beaches in the state, comparing it with specific environmental factors such as air and water temperature; wind speed and direction; and the height, angle and period of waves; to see if a pattern of injury occurrence emerges.
To date they have tallied 1,100 spinal injuries. Although most were more minor, such as 400 dislocated shoulders, there were also three fatalities. And 55 of the total were cervical fractures, some of which may have resulted in paralysis. (They don't track people after they've left the emergency room.) Surf-related spinal injuries are not that rare, Cowan says. "One of my first observations when I came here 11 years ago was that in car accidents you look for spinal cord injuries—and they're not very common. Here, I saw a lot of people injured in the surf who actually had cervical injuries," he notes.
As Cowan and his group search the sea and the sky for clues about why people are getting injured, some believe they already have answer, and they're pointing down—to the sand. Surfers and lifeguards blame many of the surf-related injuries—particularly those affecting the spine—on beach replenishment, the process by which new sand is pumped on to beaches to protect the coastline from storms and erosion. They say adding new sand doesn't just make beaches wider, it makes them higher, resulting in steep slopes that can cause large waves to break close to shore. "We never really had spinal cord injuries until beach replenishment. There is a direct correlation," says Jerry Inderwies, Cape May's fire chief, adding, "There's been a significant increase in all kinds of surf-related injuries, from dislocated shoulders to abrasions, head wounds and contusions."