The doctors who surf
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.