My Soulless Surf Journey
About four years ago, I was in a tragic accident where two of my fingertips were severed on my right hand. This changed my life forever. I’ve spent these past few years trying to cope with this extreme trauma, and have struggled greatly attempting to function day-to-day without those two fingertips. Dealing with the loss of those fingertips has been a nightmare, but what has made it far worse is that parties who bear responsibility for this tragedy have refused to accept any accountability for their actions. So as I’ve dealt with surgeries, rehab and learning to live with my disability, I’ve also had to fight a legal war that never should have happened in the first place.
On the evening of August 20, 2018, I walked into Toes On The Nose at the Hyatt Hotel in Huntington Beach, known as Surf City and home to the annual US Open of Surfing, to inquire about taking a surf lesson. I had seen advertisements for surf lessons via their ads and brochures on many occasions. One particular ad I saw advertised a deal to get a surf lesson with lunch included. I reviewed their brochure and asked questions about the lesson, specifically, I asked if the Hyatt gym membership discount I had would apply since I was a member. I was told yes. The brochure I looked at stated that the surf lesson would include a safety instruction and a surfboard, leash and wetsuit would be provided. I texted my friend, Paul, that night asking him if he’d like to join me for the lesson the next morning and he said yes. Initially, the store clerk could not find an instructor who was available – all of their regular instructors were booked or busy. However, she was able to find me an instructor.
The last photo of me before the accident at the surf shop.
That next morning, Paul and I walked into Toes On The Nose. The shop was buzzing with surf instructors and other customers who were also there to take a surf lesson. I paid for the lesson, and received the Hyatt gym membership discount as promised. We met our surf instructor, who I will refer to as Spicoli, and were provided our wetsuits. We put them on and then went to pick out our boards. My friend had never surfed before so Spicoli grabbed a beginner’s board for him. I told Spicoli I’d take a beginner’s board as well. I had surfed before, but I was not good enough to use a shortboard or to surf on my own. Hence, why I was taking the lesson. Plus, it had been at least two years since I had taken my last surf lesson.
We took the 5-minute walk down to the beach. It was a nice day so there were many other people surfing, swimming and lounging on the beach. This is typical for Huntington Beach during the summer. When we got down to the beach, I noticed our two boards did not have leashes. I had taken several surf lessons since 2010, including in different countries, and in every lesson I was always provided a leash. So I was a little taken aback and confused as to why these boards did not have leashes. So I asked Spicoli why there were no leashes on the boards, and specifically asked if something had happened that deemed leashes were no longer safe. He said yes that something like that had happened. Paul asked what do we do if we lose our boards, and he said the boards are big and heavy so they won’t go far. Spicoli assured us not to worry. When Spicoli informed me something happened that deemed leashes were no longer safe, I had no reason not to believe him. So I proceeded on with the lesson.
Spicoli gave Paul and I instructions on how to pop up. He had us practice it only a few times, and then insisted we get into the water. The rushed lesson on land made Paul uncomfortable since he had never surfed before. So he asked Spicoli more questions and practiced popping up a few more times before we all got into the water. We received no safety instruction as promised.
When we got in the water, Spicoli would scout for the right waves. When he found a good wave for us, he would alternate pushing one of us into the wave. My rusty performance amplified that it had been a while since I had surfed last. I struggled to stand up on many runs, and the times I did get up, I usually fell at some point. This caused me to lose my board almost every time I attempted to surf a wave. Since I did not have a leash, I spent most of my lesson swimming and/or running in shallow water to fetch my board.
Towards the end of the lesson, I was absolutely exhausted from constantly fetching my board. I had just lost my surfboard again, and had to swim after it. When I reached my board, I grabbed it and began to turn it around so I could get on top of it and paddle back out to surf another wave. When I looked behind me, I saw a huge wave breaking over my head. All I could think in that split second was that I could not lose my board one more time because I did not have the energy to go fetch it again. If I had a leash, I would not have had to worry about losing my board again nor would I have spent most my lesson swimming to fetch my board. I saw the board string in my reach, so I instinctively grabbed it with my right two fingers. This is the moment my life would change forever.
The powerful wave took me underwater, and threw me around like a rag doll. The board was ripped away from me in a flash. While I was underwater, I knew something was not right. When I managed to pop my head up, and stand up, I could feel a sharp pain coming from my right hand. I thought in my head, or maybe it was wishful thinking, that perhaps I broke a nail.
There is nothing in the world that could prepare me for what I was about to see next. I slowly lifted my right hand out of the water, and I saw my middle and index fingers severed, covered with blood and bones sticking out. This sight looked like a scene straight out of a horror movie. A thick aura of darkness instantly came over me, and a feeling of sheer terror and panic consumed me. I quickly covered my right hand with my left hand to stop the blood from pouring out and to cover the gory sight. I refused to look at my hand again till much later in the day because I couldn’t stomach it.
Graphic Warning: Click here for an animated video recreation of my accident.
It’s amazing how many thoughts can hit you all at once during such extreme trauma when you’re in fight or flight mode. My first thought was that I was going to die. I truly believed in that moment that I was going to bleed out on the beach, and my life would be over. I knew this wasn’t rational but this was how I felt. I had never experienced such a feeling of such sheer terror and fear in my life. It made me think of the work I do exposing child trafficking and the grotesque abuse those kids endure. I wondered in that moment, is this the horror those poor kids feel?
I remember crying out to God, and that’s when the darkness began to lift a little. What happened next is hard to describe; however, I believe it’s similar to accounts of near death experiences where people claim their life flashes before them in an instant. For me though, it wasn’t my life that flashed before me. Instead, I saw a vision of many different soldiers in combat from different wars through the years. I saw men get different body parts blown off – arms and legs – and they had to lie there often for long periods of time before they got medical assistance. I felt God assure me that that would not be the case for me; I would get medical care much more quickly. Then I saw visions of those same soldiers years later. They were excelling at life despite their disability. Some of those soldiers went on to run marathons and conquer other kinds of athletic achievements with prosthetics or in wheelchairs. The last image I saw was that of famed surfer Bethany Hamilton, and how after losing her arm to a shark attack, she recovered and continued to surf and live a full life. This all came at me in seconds, and it played out like a movie in my head. I felt like it was God’s way of telling me, this road is not going to be easy, but you too will overcome this tragedy like so many others have.
The feeling of terror I had became less intense after the surreal visions I had, but I was still in a total panic. I started screaming out for help and shouting: “I lost my fingers!” I remember looking at people on the beach just staring at me with blank looks on their faces including the female lifeguard. No one moved for what felt like eternity. I couldn’t wrap my head around why no one was coming to help me. It was like time just stood still. The people around me froze.
I slowly made my way to the beach crying as I clenched my right hand, with my left hand, as tight as I possibly could. When I got to the beach, I just stood there in shock crying and shouting profanities. The pain felt unbearable, and I could not get the sight of my gory severed fingers out of my head. After what seemed like eternity, the lifeguard finally came to my assistance along with a couple of men who pulled up in a red lifeguard truck. They proceeded to escort me to the lifeguard stand until the ambulance arrived. When I attempted to walk, I fainted which caused me to collapse. My legs had totally given out. I was too overwhelmed by the trauma to move but I came to within seconds. This is the only time I’ve fainted in my life.
I have no memory of seeing Spicoli after my accident. I remember seeing Paul when I was on the beach with the men who came in the truck. The men insisted I let go of my hand so they could see my injury. When I finally did, I refused to look, but I remember seeing Paul have a look of sheer horror on his face, and he immediately covered his eyes. I was crushed.
I truly felt like my life was over. I now had a deformity and a serious disability – how will I ever write again? Who would ever want to date me? I can’t describe how excruciatingly bad the pit in my stomach was or how severe the physical pain was. It wasn’t till I got into the ambulance that someone was finally able to calm me down. At the beach, it was just total chaos and people were panicking especially after they saw my hand. This caused me to panic more. However, in the ambulance, a male paramedic was the first person I encountered who was able to calm me down just by speaking positively to me in a soothing manner. I think he managed to even make me laugh.
When I got to the emergency room at the hospital, I was still in an intense amount of pain even though the paramedics had given me painkillers via an IV in the ambulance. I had thought that my pain could not get any worse but I was dead wrong. They injected multiple shots into my hands – in-between each knuckle and in various spots on the palm of my hand – in the ER. I was screaming so loudly from the pain that the nurse had to stuff a washcloth in my mouth to muzzle me.
A few of my friends, including Paul, came to visit me at the hospital. I was so drugged up and still in shock so most of it was a blur. I do remember bawling my eyes out to a pastor who came by to pray for me, and the paramedic who first calmed me down, came back to the hospital to check on me. I’ll never forget how much his kindness gave me the little peace I desperately needed during the darkest moment in my life. I still think about him often.
Before I arrived at the hospital, Paul went to collect my items on the beach and walked back to the shop with Spicoli. During their walk, another surf instructor passed them and asked what happened. They said there had been a surf accident. Paul told me he was shocked to hear Spicoli downplay my accident stating I was okay. Paul chimed in and said: “She’s not okay – she just lost her fingers!” That other instructor then asked them if I had put my fingers in the board string. This statement haunts me to this day. Why was this surf instructor so quick to come to this conclusion? Did someone else lose his or her fingers in the same way while taking a lesson with Toes On The Nose at the Hyatt Hotel?
When Spicoli got back to the shop, he wrote a statement about the accident. Spicoli wrote that he told me not to put my fingers in the board string during our lesson. This would be his first bold-faced lie of many to come. He never said this or anything like this to Paul or I. As he immortalized his lie in writing, I was laying on a gurney in the ambulance in shock and utter despair. Little did I know then that before the blood had a chance to dry on my hands, the massive cover-up had just begun.
To be continued…
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