COURTESY PHOTO BY KENNY HOSACK, CRAIG HOSPITAL
Peter Jessee of Tulsa, Okla., waits for his physical therapy to begin at Craig Hospital with his parents, Janet and Bud. Jessee incurred a spinal injury called surfer's myelopathy May 23 while surfing off Waikiki for his first time.
Surfers’ spinal injury can paralyze beginners
Rare injury afflicts first-time surfers
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When surfers imagine the risks of the pursuit, they might think of bone-pounding breakers, lungs full of foam or a passing tiger shark.
But a small number of novices are afflicted each year by a largely unknown and wholly preventable condition than can leave their legs paralyzed.
Peter Jessee, a star high school athlete from Tulsa, Okla., was taking a lesson May 23 off Waikiki when his back started to hurt. Now he is a paraplegic at Craig Hospital in Denver, the destination of some of Hawaii's worst cases of surfer's myelopathy.
Meanwhile another Waikiki casualty, Joe Guintu, is showing improvement.
COURTESY PHOTO BY KENNY HOSACK, CRAIG HOSPITAL
Surfer's myelopathy afflicts Peter Jessee, pictured here with physical therapist Alissa Thibeault. Jessee has been undergoing treatment at Craig Hospital in Denver.
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A high school graduation trip to Hawaii for a 19-year-old Oklahoma athlete turned into a nightmare last month after his first try at surfing.
"Here he is, a football star ... and now he can't walk," said the youth's father, Bud Jessee, in a telephone interview.
His son, Peter, suffered a rare spinal-cord injury known as surfer's myelopathy after his first surfing lesson at Waikiki Beach on May 23.
Four years after the condition was first described in medical literature, preventable injuries of this type are still occurring, prompting calls for better education and a more proactive approach among surfing teachers.
The good news is that with early evaluation and state-of-the-art intervention to reduce swelling and maximize blood flow and oxygen, many patients improve dramatically, says Dr. Alan Weintraub, of Craig Hospital in Denver, which receives some of Hawaii's worst cases.
The injury is associated with first-time surfers, resulting from repeatedly arching their back off the board as they look for waves. The lower part of the spinal cord suffers from restricted blood flow.
Peter Jessee felt back pain while surfing but "thought it was no big deal," his father said. "You don't think of a back being bothered as far as cutting blood off to his spinal cord. That's what this is. He walked up on the beach after the one-hour surfing lesson, and 45 minutes later he couldn't walk."
Jessee was taken by ambulance to the Queen's Medical Center, and a flight nurse accompanied him June 3 to Craig Hospital, renowned for spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries.
He joined two other patients, both girls, also being treated at the center after coming down with surfer's myelopathy on Maui.
One, age 16 or 17, left the hospital June 5 for her home in California after nearly two months at the rehabilitation center, said Dr. Shih-Fong "Mike" Hsu.
"She is happily going home without equipment (a wheelchair)," said Hsu, a spinal cord injury specialist also caring for Jessee. "She's not completely normal, but we expect her to improve as time goes on."
He said Craig Hospital averages a couple of cases of surfer's myelopathy a year.
Weintraub, medical director of Craig Hospital's Brain Injury Treatment Team, said people with surfer's myelopathy "have immediate onset of loss of sensation and motor function, generally from midback to midwaist down."
Roughly 70 percent to 80 percent of patients show excellent recovery, according to literature on the syndrome, Hsu said. But patients who go to Craig Hospital have paralysis, he said.
"The outcome may not be as good as those who from the beginning show recovery."
Jessee is a paraplegic, with both legs and his trunk affected, Hsu said.
Bud Jessee, in Denver with his wife, Janet, has described his son's rigorous therapy sessions and ups and downs in e-mails.
He said his son was "on the verge of giving up hope" during the first days at Craig Hospital. A huge outpouring of messages and visits from soccer and hockey pals and other friends and family lifted his spirits.
"Now we know for a fact that there is some healing taking place," he said after a recent MRI.
Jessee said all surfing instructors should be aware of myelopathy's warning signs.
He said his son, who was surfing with his sister, Whitney, told his instructor his back hurt. "If he knew about this kind of stuff, he would have said, 'You have to quit right now.' A first-time surfer wants to surf as long as he can, so you push yourself. Well, he's pushed himself right into a wheelchair."
Jessee said his son, a letterman in football and soccer at Broken Arrow High School near Tulsa, had planned to attend the University of Oklahoma in the fall.
He is expected to be at the rehabilitation center for at least 60 days.
"Hopefully, we'll have him walking by then," his father said. "We pray for that every day."