Protect your neck. It's this straight-forward message that has supplied deep meaning to the life of Chris McAleer, a 29-year-old ex-surfer who talks to kids about how to prevent what happened to him from happening to them.
For McAleer, a day goofing off in the waves and enjoying some somersaults turned tragic five years ago when a powerful wave knocked him off his board and onto his head and left him paralyzed.
"It felt like God turned the switch off in the back of my neck, and I was unable to move my hands or arms or legs," McAleer recalls of the day that he became destined to live out his life in a wheelchair.
McAleer is, unfortunately, one of many people who suffer cervical-spine injuries at the beach each year.
McAleer, who works with "Project Wipeout", a safe-surfing education program, spreads this safer-surfing message: "Know the ocean's depth where you are surfing and about any sandbars in the area, and if you fall off your board, always protect your head."
"If you're not prepared, it's like getting hit by a truck," warns Eric Ethans, a lifeguard at Newport Beach in California.
Beyond knowing how to swim and swimming near a lifeguard and with a buddy, Project Wipeout, founded by Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, offers these additional tips on preventing spinal-cord trauma:
- Don't dive headfirst into the waves from the beach because the water might be shallow.
- Don't jump or dive into the water from a pier or rock jetty because the water might be much more shallow than it looks.
- If you're bodysurfing or boogie boarding, always keep your arms in front of you to protect your head and neck.
- Stay out of the "surf zone" where the waves break and are most forceful. If you find yourself in the zone, duck under the wave.
- If you're in trouble, call or wave for help.
If you see someone who has possibly suffered a spinal injury, the U.S. Lifesaving Association says to follow these steps:
- Call a lifeguard or phone 911.
- Tell the injured person to hold his or her body — and especially the head and neck — still.
- And help the person to maintain the same position until paramedics arrive.
- In the water, do your best to keep the person still while maintaining an open airway.