Study of ‘surf-zone’ injuries identifies risk factors — and getting caught by surprise tops the list
Ask Dr. Paul Cowan what prompted him to study injuries caused by waves slamming beachgoers into the sand, and he’ll cite a moment in 2002 when the emergency room at Beebe Medical Center (now Beebe Healthcare) looked and smelled like a day at the ocean.
“Everyone who’s been in a hospital knows that distinctive antiseptic smell,” he says. “But I remember walking in at about 2 p.m. on this one hot July day to the strong smell of suntan oil overpowering everything else. I looked out and saw sand on the tile floor and a room full of people in swimsuits, barefoot or in flip-flops, who’d obviously come there straight from the beach.”
The stories told by these patients had a surreal quality. Many described an ordinary day, with waves neither large nor small — the kind of day when you might venture up to your thighs in the water and feel completely safe.
But turn your back on that ocean and the dynamics can change. The result: backwash from a retreating wave sucks the sand from beneath your feet an instant before an incoming wave topples you forward, slamming you down so hard it’s difficult to get back up before the next wave hits.