After losing his arm and leg in battle, a Hawaiian soldier being
treated at the Naval Medical Center San Diego told his doctors that
more than anything else, he wanted to surf again.
years later, the hospital's surfing clinic staff has assisted more
than 1,500 wounded, ill and injured service members from all service
branches in their recovery through surfing.
"I remember at
the time, I told him we're going to go surfing but I had no idea how
we're going to go, with him missing an arm and a leg," said Betty
Michalewicz-Kragh, surf therapy program manager and exercise
physiologist with the Health and Wellness department at the medical
center, also known as "Balboa."
Michalewicz-Kragh said she
looked for ideas on the internet and eventually called a Brazilian
above-the-knee amputee who came to San Diego and assisted
Michalewicz-Kragh in training the soldier for five weeks.
patient started surfing. "And as a result of him going surfing, many
other wounded warriors have gone surfing, and it's been an amazing
journey," she said.
Today, adaptive surfing is more
mainstream, with its third world championship taking place in
December in La Jolla, California. Michalewicz-Kragh said when the
clinic first started using surfing therapy, she only thought of the
physical benefits, such as the cardio ability and strengthening the
September 14, 2017 - Navy veteran Lt. Cmdr and volunteer surf
instructor Tom Rice gives pop up tips to Marine Pvt. 1st Class
Ashton Aspley during a surf therapy session for Naval Medical Center
San Diego patients in Del Mar, California. Participation for
patients like Aspley is medically appointed, and its benefits
include pain management and post traumatic stress disorder
treatment. (DoD photo by EJ Hersom)
"We ended up realizing the benefit surfing has for
post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health
issues," she added. "It's been an amazing journey."
Finding Fitness, Friends
Surfing is like a medication, and all the side effects are good,
Michalewicz-Kragh said. "A person may come here to surf but they end
up finding a community," she explained. "The side effects will be
that his fitness level will be better, his cardiovascular ability
improves, he gets stronger, and he meets a lot of people. The
community integration aspect is really important, so there are many
benefits to surfing."
She said patients don't need to know
how to surf before showing up and they can attend the swim clinic
beforehand. "Our goal for the patients as they come to the program
is to find out how they can make their life better by surfing and to
have the ability to surf and become a better surfer," she said. "You
will not be Kelly Slater after six weeks, and not after 12, but you
will have the tools to know how to practice and learn how to surf on
your own safely and independently."
surfing, patients can also take yoga classes at the beach, thanks to
Navy Cmdr. Lori Christensen, the Navy medical center's preventive
medicine department head.
"I always check with them at the beginning of class as they check
in, where they're hurting, so I can make sure they focus the class
on things that will be beneficial to any particular needs they may
have and then ask them afterward," Christensen said. "I've had
feedback from some patients who say that this is the only thing
they've found that helps them feel better, and some who say, ‘I
hated yoga, but now I love it,' so that's encouraging. It's a great
setting. It's not me; it's the beach."
programs such as the surfing clinic are important for wounded
warriors. "It gives them hope and confidence, which will help them
with their depression if they have it," she said. "It's giving them
hope that they can get better, confidence in their abilities to do
so, and then ability and new skills and new talents."
The patients can go through the six-week program
twice to learn surfing, and those who transition out of the military
and stay in the local area can continue with the program. About 50
surfers -- retired firefighters, police officers and military, along
with the Del Mar lifeguards -- volunteer to work with the patients
in the surf therapy clinic
September 14, 2017 - Navy Seaman Emily Wallace catches a wave with
her volunteer surf instructor Necia Snow during a surf therapy
session for Naval Medical Center San Diego patients in Del Mar,
California. Wallace suffers from an illness that causes severe pain,
and the medically appointed surf therapy helps manage her pain. (DoD
photo by EJ Hersom)
Former Air Force Sgt. Warren James, a Vietnam veteran, has been
volunteering for the past two years. "I'm really good at teaching
the beginners," the former avionics technician said. "It's very
rewarding for me, and I can see it's very effective for the
James, who repaired radios and radar equipment on F-4, C-130 and
C-40 aircraft during his military service, said he enjoys
volunteering with service members and fellow veterans. "It's
overwhelming sometimes. They have injuries, and I didn't really get
injured, so I feel for them," he said. "I saw a lot of bad things,
and I don't say much about it, but it's really good to be able to
talk to somebody else about it. I know how they feel … I didn't have
PTSD, but I can sense when they do, and it's really comforting to
help them and know that it's helping me, too."
participants gain confidence as they make progress in the surfing
clinic, he said. "If they had a physical injury, they recover
quicker," he added. "They take less medication. It's just a really
Retired Marine Corps
Sgt. Toran Gaal, a bilateral amputee who lives in Valley Center,
California, said surfing brings him closer to those he lost in
combat. He was injured in an improvised explosive device blast in
Afghanistan in 2011.
"To be in a place like the ocean, it allows me to be closer to
those people and feel like I'm lifted up," Gaal said. "I feel like
I'm around them when I'm out there. I feel like they're around me,
watching over me, making sure I'm safe. The ocean allows me to feel
close to them, as well as gain relationships with some of the
volunteers to be happy."
September 14, 2017 - Marine veteran Sgt. Toran Gaal with his
custom surfboard, which allows him to surf despite being a double
amputee during the Naval Medical Center San Diego surf therapy
clinic in Del Mar, California. (DoD photo by EJ Hersom)
The surfing clinic is about surfing and reintegration
into the community, Gaal said. "It's not just about gaining
independence and going out and surfing. It's about
reintegration and transitioning," he said.
he and his wife, Lisa, have become friends and family with
Bob Bishop, one of the volunteers, with whom they have
regular lunches at Bishop's home.
"It's just a sense
of family for me, and my wife knows that. She knows that
when I'm around these people, I come back happier because I
enjoy being in their presence and the negativity is not
there. They're all positive influences," Gaal said.
Marine Corps Cpl. Leighton Anderson, a Gardena, California,
native who was injured during an MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor
aircraft crash in 2016, said he enjoys the surfing clinic as
"I always wanted to learn how to surf, since
I'm from California," Anderson said. "I tried it three times
in my life and never did it. I was like, ‘Let me try it
through here,' and then after that, I was hooked. It was
pretty sweet. I love it. Everybody's really nice and
Anderson said surfing helps him
physically and mentally.
"I had so many barriers,
because once I was injured, I was like, ‘I don't know if I
can do that. I might hurt myself.' I have a little PTSD, and
I didn't think I would enjoy anything. Once I tried it, I
broke down a lot of barriers I had mentally and physically.
I had weak tendons in my hand and foot, but with surfing
they're starting to get better. And mentally, it makes me
happy. It's just something everybody should take on."
"Surfing therapy is amazing," James said. "The program
works, because it keeps them not thinking what they would
normally would be thinking when they're at a medical
appointment. But here, we just talk about other things, and
that's why it works.
"It's different," he added. "I
definitely suggest getting in the water, even if you have no
experience at all. Just come to the beach."
By Shannon Collins
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