Our hearts are broken.
On July 6, Ben Carlson became the first
Newport Beach lifeguard to die in the line of duty. The job of this
15-year veteran of the city's marine operations was to protect swimmers
and surfers, and he died doing just that, diving into turbulent waters
to save a swimmer in distress.
It was part of his training and part of his calling, but it doesn't make his passing any easier to bear.
On Wednesday evening, more than 200 lifeguards, police officers and
other first responders from around Orange County gathered for the 35th
annual Project Wipeout Educational Conference at Hoag Hospital. The only
seminar of its kind in the country, it is held to share information
with these brave men and women about topics as varied as surf conditions
and skin cancer.
The tragic loss of one of our own loomed over
this year's conference: Hoag offered chaplaincy services, grief
counseling was available through the Hoag Community Benefit Program and
many friends and colleagues spoke about the various ways city officials,
surfers and lifeguards have planned to memorialize Ben.
program director for Project Wipeout, I think one important way we can
honor Ben's legacy is by continuing the work of educating the public
about beach safety.
Project Wipeout was started after the summer
of 1979, when five young men were admitted to Hoag Hospital's intensive
care unit with neck and spinal cord injuries related to surfing and
swimming accidents at the beach. Dr. Jack Skinner and other concerned
Hoag physicians, nurses, paramedics and lifeguards decided something had
to be done and developed educational material to help prevent injuries
and save lives.
Today, Project Wipeout has reached millions —
young, old, experienced swimmers and novices — offering information and
resources to keep people safe at the beach.
We work in tandem with
lifeguards, who often use the project's printed material in their talks
with the public about beach safety. I only met Ben a few times, but I
know he was as dedicated as anyone in the lifeguarding community to
preventing injuries and saving lives.
When lifeguards are doing
their jobs, the public doesn't notice. Yes, they dive off boats like Ben
did to carry out daring rescues, and they perform CPR to save those who
would otherwise perish. They are superheroes. But for every rescue, the
lifeguards perform three preventative actions — pulling a swimmer out
of trouble before that swimmer even knows he needs help, for instance.
Project Wipeout's aim is to keep people from getting into trouble in
the first place. We teach people how to break free from a rip current,
among other safety tips. Rip currents are among the biggest causes of
drowning, and the untrained eye typically doesn't see them. If you're
caught in a rip current, swim parallel to shore. It's best to swim north
in the summer and south in the winter, using the power of the ocean to
propel you back to shore.
We teach people not to dive head first
into the water because the ocean floor is uneven. It's best to test the
depth of water with your feet, not your head.
Most importantly, we
let people know that when they're at the beach, they should check in
with the lifeguards. Lifeguards can tell you what the ocean conditions
are like and whether it's a good idea to swim.
lifeguards do — advise and caution, as well as save. They live to serve;
their motto is "Lifeguards for life." That's why losing one makes us
all feel hollow inside.
Our hearts are broken, but the mission of
preventing beach injuries and saving lives, the mission Ben gave his
life to fulfill, is as strong as ever.
For more information, please check out http://www.hoag.org/projectwipeout.
Linda Reuter is the program director of Project Wipeout at Hoag Hospital.
Linda's column was also featured in the Daily Pilot.