My First Serious Surfing Injury

As I paddled out past the breakers last Monday afternoon, something didn’t feel quite right.

There are days when Moana is warm and accepting–these are the days when you paddle out and you feel safe and secure, almost like you belong out there. I’ve felt her welcome on many occasions, in particular, one warm afternoon this past December when I caught a wave and looked down to see a single stingray gliding under the water just ahead of the nose of my board. I took that as a positive sign from Moana, so I turned my board, followed the stingray toward the beach and then popped off the board as the stingray veered down the coast.

There are other days when Moana doesn’t want you around and you’re better off keeping your feet on the hot sand. Last Monday felt like that kind of day, but the breaks hadn’t been good for the past two weeks and I was itching to catch a couple of waves so even though it felt like a day that I’d be better off staying dry, I put on my wet suit, strapped my leash to my leg and paddled out nonetheless.

Two strong sets of opposing currents—one from the east, around Hick’s Bay, and another from the the low-pressure systems of the Pacific Islands—met and clashed at West End and by the time I got out past the breakers, I could feel the tidal conflict and decided to just grab one wave and call it a day.

The sand bar must have been shaped like a narrow valley because the waves were breaking twice over the space of ten yards. This is not unusual and good surfers can actually capitalize on the dual-breaking waves, but I am a mediocre surfer and I decided to catch one that was breaking further out and then bail out before it broke again. After I caught the first wave, I started paddling toward the shore and over my shoulder I saw what appeared to be an easy left-hander coming my way so I got ready to ride it but before I popped up, the wave jacked up quickly and it threw me over the nose. That’s not a big deal in and of itself. It’s called pearling out and it’s the embarrassing surf equivalent of falling from a standing position.

By this point, though, I was in knee-deep water so after I slid off the nose I jumped up and looked around for my board. Somehow, I had gotten ahead of it and as I turned around to follow my leash another wave swept up my board and pitched it directly into my mouth.

I felt a slash and then something wet and warm coating my tongue. When I looked down, my board and the front of my wet suit was covered in blood. It felt like my lip was hanging below my chin and that moment, then, became the point in time of my First Serious Surfing Injury.

I grabbed my board and ran off the beach thinking that I’d jump in my car and drive the 8 km to the hospital but by the time I got over the dunes I was feeling woozy so I stopped by my friend Bill’s house and rang the doorbell. He swung the door open, took one look at me and I could tell he made a concerted effort to mask his alarm. “Oh . . . Eric,” Bill said with a kind of unnatural calmness, “let’s get you to the hospital.”

An hour later as I lay on a bed in the emergency room at Whakatane hospital, the ER doc picked something out of my teeth and asked, “What’s this green stuff?” to which I drolly replied, “My board.”

By that evening, I was stitched up and sitting at home gingerly sipping a beer. “Wow,” I thought, “That was lucky! I got myself a nice hero scar, a good story to tell and my lip hardly hurts at all!” I walked over to my neighbor, Scott’s house and showed him the wound. Scott looked genuinely pleased and aa fellow surfer, he clapped me on my back and said, “Congratulations, you are a real surfer now.” Scott’s wife, Fionna, a nurse at the hospital, was just looking at me with a tight smile and it wasn’t until the next day, when the searing pain began that I realized Fionna knew that my high spirits would not last long.

A post-ER beer at Mata Brewery in Whakatane

Fionna knew something I didn’t, namely, that the Novocain the doctor had given me was still very much in my system and serving as a barrier to the pain. By the next morning, after the Novocain and Ibuprofen had worn off, I woke up to a lip that was swollen to the size of my thumb and a throbbing, constant pain across the lower portion of my face. And to make matters worse, now that my mouth wasn’t numb, I realized that at least one, probably two, of my front teeth were wobbly.

I tried to do a bit of yoga just to prove that I could do it and then got myself together as best as I could and drove into town to see Sujata at the hospital. As I walked through the front door I ran into Agnes, the hospital receptionist who I’ve become friendly with. She saw me the day before as I hobbled into the ER, blood dripping off my chin and onto my shirt and without taking her eyes off me she picked up her phone and then I heard her whisper, “Sujata, you better come down to the ER.” When I saw Agnes the following day, though, she waved me over and asked, “How old are you?” to which I replied, “Well, Agnes, as a matter of fact, I’m 53 today.” Agnes quickly shook her head and said, “You are too old to surf.”

Fair enough, but, truth be told I am by far not the oldest surfer at West End and in fact, some of the most beautiful and graceful surfers on our beach have me by at least a decade.

We went to Wellington this past weekend and while Sujata and the kids bopped around, eating whatever they pleased and enjoying all the wonderful things Wellington has to offer, I walked around in a painful daze, sipping milkshakes and drinking beer from a straw.

Twelve stitches and a puncture wound

It’s been ten days since the accident, though, and I’m, happily, feeling better. Sujata cut the stitches on the outside of my lip off yesterday but the ones on the inside are still there. I think my tooth is tightening up, which will be good news because if it doesn’t, I’ll need a root canal.

My family’s responses to the accident and its aftermath have been telling. Sujata, who is self-admittedly a better doctor than she is a nurse, has been cool but helpful, offering equal parts eye-rolling and genuine efforts to help me alleviate the pain and preclude infection. The first few days after the injury, I looked like an extra from Dawn of the Dead and my daughter, understandably, announced at the breakfast table, “I’m sorry, but I don’t even want to look at Dad.” Last evening, as my son was preparing for his first day back at school following our Wellington trip, he asked me with genuine concern and wonder, “Dad, if you can’t surf tomorrow, what are you going to do all day?” I told him not to worry about me, I’d figure it out, but given that I can’t even swim at this point and given that hardly a day goes by when I don’t either swim in the pool or surf in the ocean (many days I do both), it does leave a gap in my days.

The final bit, though, is a shout out for socialized medicine. Since I incurred the injury here in New Zealand, the visit to the ER and even the visit I made to the dentist on the following day are 100% covered by the Accident Compensation Corporation. Thanks, New Zealand, for taking care of me, and your own.

3 thoughts on “My First Serious Surfing Injury

  1. Quite an adventure my man—you have the 19th century university student scar as a badge of honor—becareful you’re still young

  2. You better get back in that ocean soon my man. Those sun hot undulations don’t last forever.

    Btw, bo really wants to know where Atticus and Eleanor are. Sad and beautiful.

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