Surf can be dangerous, traumatic-injury patients warn

Former lifeguard Chad de Satnick broke several vertebrae in 2001.
Former lifeguard Chad de Satnick broke several vertebrae in 2001. (HILLARY PETROZZIELLO / For The Inquirer)
Posted: August 26, 2012

A former lifeguard and longtime surfer, Chad de Satnick never imagined he'd be injured by the ocean he'd grown up with - and the waves he rode so often.

But he was surprised by a wave that picked him up on Cape May's Poverty Beach and slammed him headfirst into the sand, breaking several vertebrae in his neck and back.

De Satnick fully recovered from the September 2001 mishap, and has been working with local and national organizations to alert other beachgoers to the danger of water-related spinal, cervical, and concussive injuries.

The number of cases has more than doubled - with 24 reported from Memorial Day through July, compared with 11 during the same period last year, according to the AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center (ARMC) in Atlantic City.

The 24 - ranging in age from 12 to 69 - were among more than 400 people with traumatic injuries treated at Harrah's Regional Trauma Center, an ARMC facility that receives patients from many Jersey Shore communities. In the last week of July alone, eight people suffered spinal-cord injuries on the beach or in the water.

The numbers may have risen because an unseasonably mild spring and warm waters drew large crowds to the beach earlier than normal, while storms at sea kicked up potentially dangerous surf, officials said. Also, many people remained in the water after lifeguards finished their day's work.

At the same time, the popularity of surfboarding, boogie-boarding, and bodysurfing led to collisions and spills. Those were aggravated by vacationers' unfamiliarity with the shifting sands and strong waves breaking in shallow waters.

"I'm a lot more cautious when I go in the water now," said de Satnick, 35, of Cold Spring, whose doctors fused vertebrae in his spine and placed a titanium rod and plate in his neck. "You want to make people more aware of the situation around them and encourage safety."

De Satnick has been doing just that.

Once a patient at Harrah's Regional Trauma Center, he has been a speaker at AtlantiCare's annual Lifeguard SAVE (Safe Attitudes and Valiant Efforts) event, held to recognize the service of Southern New Jersey lifeguards.

He also serves as the Northeast events coordinator for Life Rolls On, a subsidiary of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of young people affected by spinal-cord injuries. Its program "They Will Surf Again" returns youths to the water with the help of volunteers and adaptive equipment.

"I grew up less than a mile and a half from the beach, and I was injured," de Satnick said. "People who come from other places are less familiar with the beach, and that can be a problem."

David Taylor of Lansdale has been a regular at Cape May for three decades - even after he was seriously injured in August 2007.

"I was body surfing with my son," said Taylor, 65, who retired from the Norfolk & Southern Railroad. "I rode a wave in, and when I went to get up, a big wave came in on top of me.

"It slammed me on the beach, and I found myself face down in the water unable to move," he said. "I thought, 'OK, arms and legs - it's time to get up.' "

But, Taylor said, he was "just drifting back and forth. I thought I was going to die."

"By the grace of God, my son noticed something was wrong and pulled me out with assistance from a lifeguard."

After years of therapy, Taylor is able to move short distances with a walker and can feed himself. But one of his proudest achievements - like de Satnick's - is encouraging safety awareness.

He has spoken to Cape May's mayor and council about the dangers, and has seen beach signs go up warning Shore-goers of serious injuries that can occur because of waves breaking in shallow water. He has also seen the printing of pamphlets with beach-safety tips.

"Education is the key," he said. "The waves hit you like a ton of bricks; you cannot take evasive action.

"For over 50 years, I did bodysurfing and never got hurt," he said. "Now, I just put my feet in the water, and every day I'm on pain medication."

A serious injury often occurs when beachgoers least expect it, said Kristen Radcliff, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in spine surgery at the Rothman Institute at AtlantiCare and is among the specialists who treat ARMC trauma patients.

"It happens at a fairly routine family gathering," he said. "People are enjoying themselves, doing what they do at the beach.

"It's traumatic for the whole family," he said. "They see a family member dive into the water and not get out."

Radcliff recommends surgery as soon as possible. "With ocean trauma, water can get into the lungs and lead to pneumonia," he said. "I want to stabilize the spine before something prevents me from going in."

The injuries are commonly caused by bodysurfing and boogie-boarding, said Kimberly Schunk, ARMC's trauma program manager.

"We suggest people go to a beach where there are lifeguards," she said. "Heed their warnings; avoid big, rough waves; and know how shallow the water is."

Many people "dive under a wave and hit bottom with their heads," said Mark Jamieson, the training officer for the Ocean City Beach Patrol. "They don't put their hands out in front of their heads.

"Learn the bottom, go with a buddy, and leave when the lifeguards leave," he said. "It takes only a split-second to get into big trouble.

"If you don't respect the ocean, it can get you."

Contact Edward Colimore

at 856-779-3833 or


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