The doctors who surf

Craig Jarvis
Swellnet Dispatch

During the 1990s, surf camps multiplied around the world, many of them on remote coasts in less developed countries. In response, Dr. Phillip Chapman, originally from Cape Town and a UCT Medical School graduate, formed an organisation called Surfing Doctors to set up doctors on duty at some of these secluded camps. Injuries were increasing, surfers were getting seriously hurt, and there was a lack of good medical information for traveling surfers, as well as a marked number of negative outcomes to these injuries and situations. Dr Chapman wanted to lower the stats.

As a talented competitive surfer in his youth, Chapman had always had a hunger for big, barreling waves, and he had seen enough injuries at these kinds of waves over the years and knew that something had to be done. 

Dr Phillip Chapman, front arm rail grab in the bowels of Shipsterns

It was around 1996 that Dr. Chapman did his first stint at G'Land, and the Surfing Doctors roster started soon afterwards. Today there are about 50 doctors, 10 paramedics, and 10 medical students on the schedule, all doing their time, helping injured surfers, and getting fully involved in primary care amongst the locals who work at these resorts as well as their families. Amongst the medical work, they also manage to catch a few waves at some of the most exotic and coveted surfing locations in the world: G'Land, Tavarua, Macaroni’s Resort and others.

Each year the Surfing Doctors gather at G'Land for their annual conference. Not a bad place for a meet-up. They have good stories to share, and it's also a location the Surfing Doctors are often called upon.

In 2008, during a booming eight-to-ten foot swell at Speedies, the real shit went down and Dr Chapman was in the thick of it.

“It was a solid day that day, and there were just so many people in the water,” recalls Dr Chapman. “There were too many people without the skills of riding a big one at Speedies. It’s not a wave that will tolerate surfers just because they’re brave and know how to paddle for a big one. You need to know how to ride the barrel there, how to understand the crowd, how to deal with being rolled over the reef. There were so many serious wipeouts that I knew something big was going to go down.”

It started with a Kiwi surfer who head-planted the reef and had his nose broken and spread all over his face. “He was seriously injured, with coral inside the injury,” recalls Chapman.

As he got to work on this poor guy, there was suddenly another more urgent situation. A surfer had been ripped apart, and at first it seemed like he was dying on the beach.

“Now this guy was in deep trouble,” emphasised Chapman. “His pelvis had been split. His legs were forced apart and the pelvis broken by a ten foot rogue set.”

It turns out that the surfer had panicked, turned for shore, and took a ten foot lip explosion to the body at The Cobra, that notorious little piece of water that sometimes rears up like a spitting cobra and catapults surfers from Launchpads into Speedies. His obvious agony and limp state showed that he was in real danger, and it quickly became life-and-death on the coral sand at G'Land.

“We needed to get him chopper evacuated out of there, and he had all his travel insurance and medical aid covered, but still we couldn't get a chopper. They were busy making money off tourists,” says Chapman. The lack of helicopters sees them double up for emergencies as well as for touristy flyovers in Bali.

The surfer was pumped full of ketamine and morphine, and they rolled out of there in a broken down jungle ute, heading for the hospital in Banyuwangi, on that terrible jungle road to nowhere. The state of the vehical barely mattered, not even decent shock absorbers were going to help him at this stage. “We had to go with him,” recounts Dr Chapman. “If we had left him to wait for the helicopters, he would not have made it through the night.”

They made it, at 11pm that night, with the patient still alive. “He was so pumped up with morphine, his breathing slowed right down,” related Chapman. When this happens and the respiratory rates drops down too much, people can forget to breathe.

When the insurance company was given the full diagnosis - a major fracture of the pelvis with a three-inch separation - they finally kicked in and medivacced him to Bali, where he was stabilised and later sent on to Perth, for a number of massive operations. In time he made a full recovery, yet without the intervention of the Surfing Doctors he would most definitely not be around today.

Chapman at G'Land, where perfection belies the danger

Surf travel is dreamy, and there is always something romantic about going further and further off the radar, of disconnecting, of finding empty waves, and being able to totally embrace the notion of surf discovery, to live vicariously the life of Mike Boyum, Chris Goodnow, or Kevin Lovett and John Giesel, but it’s not all happy camping.

“These days if you’re going to travel to a wave that is powerful enough to barrel, then you need to sort your shit out,” says Dr Chapman bluntly. “You need to have an extensive medical kit, and you need to know how to use all the stuff in there. You need to know how to give stitches, and you need to have some sort of first aid or basic life support course under your belt, and make sure you understand the basics of CPR and the body’s airways. You don’t want a best mate dying on you because you can’t do CPR.”

Dr. Chapman, an Emergency Medicine Physician, deals with this sort of stuff every day in hospital in Perth, and has a very simple philosophy that he uitilises for many aspects of his life: Relax, Asses, React, is what Dr Chapman says is key to dealing with stress, regardless of the form.

The Surfing Doctors have got it worked out better than most of us. It is obviously grueling, and challenging work in a hospital emergency environment, or in any hospital environment. Long hours, difficult decisions, and stressful situations are a day-to-day reality, but then they go surfing. They understand the benefits of an endeavor like surfing, and it flows through their lives, keeping them fit and healthy, keeping them in the moment, and allowing them a release from the minutiae of medicine.

“Surfing is a great way to keep fit,” enthuses Dr. Chapman, “and it has many other benefits. It’s mostly low impact and endurance related, and it takes place in some incredible, unique locations. It has, at times, a Zen mindset, but there can also be a really powerful endorphin buzz after a good wave or a tube ride. Usually after a couple of hours of surfing one feels relaxed, and somewhat elated, as well as ready to take on some new challenges.”

Surf travel is one of the best aspects of our surfing world, and much of us have dedicated big chunks of our lives, not to mention finances, to travels with surfboards. Some simple planning, a few basic skills and a clear head in stressful situations will ensure that surf travel remains fun and doesn't ever turn into tragedy.

--

Dr Chapman's travel check list:

• Travel insurance: In an emergency situation the difference between getting a helicopter evac or local transport (if there is any) can be the difference between life or death.

• Medical kit:

  • Betadine; needles for removing urchins; sterile gauze; basic suture kit with local anesthetic (skin glue if you cant get suturing equipment); tweezers; basic dressings; crepe bandage and some simple analgesia; eardrops; eye drops; antihistamines, electrolyte sachets and antibiotics for skin infection; decent pain relief (anything remotely strong make sure your name is on the prescription and carry a doctor's letter for it and any antibiotics to avoid hassles with immigration).
  • If you're not on prophylaxis then a treatment dose of Malarone is a good idea.
  • A broad-spectrum antibiotic like Doxycycline for wound infections, especially marine contaminated wounds. A gastro kit that can assist with traveller's diarrhea is always a good idea.
  • No matter what protection you take, you are going to get bitten by insects, especially if you’re in the tropics, so antihistamines will help.
  • Don’t forget the basics, like sunscreen, mosquito repellent, some alcohol wipes
  • A disinfectant like Bactroban, or any antibiotic barrier cream is always going to come in handy, along Leukoplast tape to cover the wounds.  
  • A combination anti-fungal/steroid cream can be handy for weird jungle rashes. Get one of those rashes on your junk while in the jungle and you’re not going to have to sort it out quickly, or you’re going to be weeping in more ways than one. 

//CRAIG JARVIS

Comments

dandandan's picture
dandandan's picture
dandandan commented Wednesday, 11 Apr 2018 at 11:14am

Christ. Those injuries sound terrifying..

daisy duke kahanamoku's picture
daisy duke kahanamoku's picture
daisy duke kaha... commented Wednesday, 11 Apr 2018 at 11:34am

How does that happen? The split pelvis I mean. Is it from impact or doing the splits too far.

I probably dont wanna know.

freeride76's picture
freeride76's picture
freeride76 commented Wednesday, 11 Apr 2018 at 12:24pm

He had his legs wrapped around the board and the impact drove the board up into his pelvis.

daisy duke kahanamoku's picture
daisy duke kahanamoku's picture
daisy duke kaha... commented Wednesday, 11 Apr 2018 at 1:02pm

Fuck me. That's not how I pictured it but then it's no less gruesome.

freeride76's picture
freeride76's picture
freeride76 commented Wednesday, 11 Apr 2018 at 12:22pm

I was there and in the water that day.....that poor bloke was out of his depth on a very scary day.
I can't remember his name, and I'd love to know what happened to him.

Mate, if you are reading, I ended up with your beer tickets. I shared them with Dibbles and Dr Phil.

dandandan's picture
dandandan's picture
dandandan commented Wednesday, 11 Apr 2018 at 2:40pm

Within the limits of my surfing world, I can't imagine a scenario as scary as a rogue 10 footer coming in along that section of reef. Must have been a memorable day for you out there.

joesydney's picture
joesydney's picture
joesydney commented Wednesday, 11 Apr 2018 at 6:35pm

I was out that day also (I think). If what was the same day there were 2 incidents, someone broke their leg pulling into a pit and he was helicoptered out and the guy from this article.
It was my first time paddling a 7'0 that day..........

surfer1971's picture
surfer1971's picture
surfer1971 commented Thursday, 12 Apr 2018 at 6:41am

I took his boards back to Oz and he was out of the water for 14 months approx. He was from Sydney from what I can remember. I remember getting a wave through Speedies and hearing a scream but thought it was someone hooting a person. Fuck he was in bad shape on the beach when I got in and tried to help. Broke a leg many years ago out there and it was such a drama to get the helicopter out of there.

trippinpete's picture
trippinpete's picture
trippinpete commented Wednesday, 11 Apr 2018 at 1:19pm

As a paramedic thats our field. Dont take the chance, if you know one take them with you and if not i'll happily come along. All expenses paid of course

crg's picture
crg's picture
crg commented Wednesday, 11 Apr 2018 at 1:30pm

That for me is the most dangerous thing about G-Land...the easy access. Every surf over 6ft out there contains maybe 20% totally out of their depth and another 20% just able enough to get into too much trouble.
The worst hidings I've seen are from that 40% when they're sitting down the pecking order and swing late when someone falls or gets caught behind. Short, rushed decisions in heavy parts of the wave, in traffic. Ugly.

W41's picture
W41's picture
W41 commented Wednesday, 11 Apr 2018 at 4:16pm

Hmm those people who are nice enough to let the hassling pricks take all the best waves and the inside! also go to hospital after the guy who wants the inside can't make the drop. Ah locals right? Are there locals at Gland.

simba's picture
simba's picture
simba commented Wednesday, 11 Apr 2018 at 2:28pm

Wasn't Bede's injury in Hawaii a split pelvis too?.........

simba

marcus's picture
marcus's picture
marcus commented Wednesday, 11 Apr 2018 at 3:32pm

Hey Stu, Ben, i sent you guys back in 2008 the sound recording of my interview of all involved, except for the patient, back at the time it wasn't really fitting for your website. if you still have it could you please send me a copy, i think ive lost mine.

for the record, Matty vans and another surfer found the victim drifting down past the end section then Matt Percy went out helped them bring him in while i had the task of running up to Dr Phil and telling him there's a dude dieing on the beach. we thought it was a neck or back injury at first.

If anyone is ever thinking of using cover more insurance, please think again, i witnessed what they told the doctor on the phone. i will never use them.

That day was an awesome day though, god it was so perfect. i happened to be on land at the time scoffing an early lunch so i could get it to myself at lunch time.

covermore, more like coverless, they will leave you for dead

i remember the internet when it was just for inteligent people

mick-free's picture
mick-free's picture
mick-free commented Wednesday, 11 Apr 2018 at 3:13pm

That info should be more widespread. Some of the insurance companies won't cover you for offshore reefs eg. Cloudbreak...read the fineprint.

Mick Free FIFOFOMO

freeride76's picture
freeride76's picture
freeride76 commented Wednesday, 11 Apr 2018 at 3:02pm

Do you know the guys name Marcus?

udo's picture
udo's picture
udo commented Wednesday, 11 Apr 2018 at 3:20pm

Sth African fella..was living in Perth?

freeride76's picture
freeride76's picture
freeride76 commented Wednesday, 11 Apr 2018 at 3:22pm

yeah, thats him.

marcus's picture
marcus's picture
marcus commented Friday, 13 Apr 2018 at 12:46pm

yeah he was an optometrist,or chiropractor or something, Pete? perhaps?
Dr Phil knows as they met there that time next year for a reunion.
hope all is well Freeride, been too long between drinks

dentist?
was mates with Dr Phil on stalkbook but he drifted off

i remember the internet when it was just for inteligent people

Snuffy Smith's picture
Snuffy Smith's picture
Snuffy Smith commented Wednesday, 11 Apr 2018 at 7:47pm

G-land more dangerous on land than in the surf.DT and cohorts on a tear hati hati.

Balls of fire

indo-dreaming's picture
indo-dreaming's picture
indo-dreaming commented Thursday, 12 Apr 2018 at 7:19am

Thanks for the reminder, going to Indo in a few weeks, i guess i should get travel insurance this year just incase i crack a few ribs and puncture my lung again.

Ada gula, ada semut!

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Thursday, 12 Apr 2018 at 10:46am

"... just in case i crack a few ribs and puncture my lung again."

Another hell story that one.

CryptoKnight's picture
CryptoKnight's picture
CryptoKnight commented Thursday, 12 Apr 2018 at 11:05am

Speaking of stories from hell, I would rather just get all smashed up and horrifically flogged injured, and just go down like a sack of shit with the ship. That way everyone would see how committed I am, and things like that. Plus I figure that I would then have an amazing story to tell my kids! And also imagine if by a miracle I gambled and survived, how clever I would be. Like others I have also found that you can google your way through everything expertly.

bbbird's picture
bbbird's picture
bbbird commented Thursday, 12 Apr 2018 at 8:34pm

Medical kit + Insurance + prevention eg.
Crowds x reef = GATH
+ Coral = wetty & booties
maybe add Gaffa tape .....for patching board & body ... in remote areas.
Learners (40%) x (power i.e.<12sec period) = drama
P.S. Im not a robot...I ride Oz made boards.

bbbird

gggiiibbbo's picture
gggiiibbbo's picture
gggiiibbbo commented Friday, 13 Apr 2018 at 7:59am

Dr Blake Eddington from Byron has done a few trips to G-Land and helped many a surfer, too. Respect to him & all the others that help surfers come home (mostly) in one piece. I have only been to G-land once, in 2002, & on that trip a massive & messy 12ft swell came through. Only one hero tried to get out - he got completely annihilated. Boardies ripped off, cut to ribbons. His snapped board washing back in was the first indication that it wasn't a surfing day. I did get a glassy 5ft sunset session at Kongs that sticks in the memory. Heavy place, heavy wave,

marcus's picture
marcus's picture
marcus commented Friday, 13 Apr 2018 at 12:52pm

in reply to gggiiibbbo
nothing wrong with giving it a shot on a big day.
in 1998 i had it all to myself on a kongs day. was a bloody good session, but that sweep took 45 min to paddle back.
if you don't go you'll never know.

good on the bloke for giving it a crack

i remember the internet when it was just for inteligent people

gggiiibbbo's picture
gggiiibbbo's picture
gggiiibbbo commented Friday, 13 Apr 2018 at 8:00am

Dr Blake Eddington from Byron has done a few trips to G-Land and helped many a surfer, too. Respect to him & all the others that help surfers come home (mostly) in one piece. I have only been to G-land once, in 2002, & on that trip a massive & messy 12ft swell came through. Only one hero tried to get out - he got completely annihilated. Boardies ripped off, cut to ribbons. His snapped board washing back in was the first indication that it wasn't a surfing day. I did get a glassy 5ft sunset session at Kongs that sticks in the memory. Heavy place, heavy wave,

ordinary-ananomous's picture
ordinary-ananomous's picture
ordinary-ananomous commented Friday, 13 Apr 2018 at 8:26am

I was there too, best surfing day of my life jolted into reality. Dr Phil is an absolute legend in & out of the water.
I was 38 at the time & a few mates & I have just booked, can't say its not playing on my mind.
Did someone say lets surf 20's or chickens

Grey Beard

marcus's picture
marcus's picture
marcus commented Friday, 13 Apr 2018 at 12:59pm

hey mate hope all is well.
Yeah that night / arvo would have been insane for night surfing, but the doctor had my torches.
so no torch helmet, no doctor in camp, (when he was he had other things on his mind) and a 10ft bombing moneytrees to speedies.
guys were going "you doing your night torch helmet thing tonight? i said nahh, probably not a good idea'', imagine how pissed off the doc would have been with another patient from silly night surfing while hes trying to stop a guy dieing....but f#ck it would have been soo good out there

i remember the internet when it was just for inteligent people

Scott Leitch's picture
Scott Leitch's picture
Scott Leitch commented Monday, 16 Apr 2018 at 12:28pm

A great article about the harsh realities of our search for paradise.
G'Land 1983 we watched in horror as Dr Tim Cooper fell out of the lip at 6-8ft Speedies on a particularly ugly evening. He landed on his board and broke three ribs from memory. We spent the remainder of 10 day trip on red alert hoping that he had not punctured his lung. Tim survived that particular ordeal but it was a poignant reminder of our collective vulnerability.

daniel-ghanem's picture
daniel-ghanem's picture
daniel-ghanem commented Wednesday, 18 Apr 2018 at 9:48am

I just want to extend a big big thank you to Craig Jarvis for his article. I never knew the Surfing Doctors even existed. As an undergrad health student, this was an incredibly inspiring post

westozzie's picture
westozzie's picture
westozzie commented Wednesday, 18 Apr 2018 at 11:43am

Great article and comments/reminisce. By the way, which is THE best insurance policy for surf travel?

udo's picture
udo's picture
udo commented Wednesday, 12 Sep 2018 at 5:32pm

Abbey Hartley r.i.p. Would be giving Covermore a miss ...Pricks !

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