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Surf-Related Injuries Are More Common, Severe Than Beachgoers Realize

By Joe Shortsleeve, WBZ-TV
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WBZ-TV's Joe Shortsleeve Joe Shortsleeve
Joe Shortsleeve is chief correspondent for WBZ-TV News weekdays a...
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BOSTON (CBS) – Whether it’s Cape Cod, Cape Ann or Hampton Beach, New Englanders love the shoreline in the summer.

But it pays to be careful near the waves. A new study by researchers at the University of Delaware found surf-related injuries are more common, and more severe, than many beachgoers realize.

Sean Sweeney has been a lifeguard at Horseneck Beach in Westport for seven years, and he says the waves are powerful and strong. “I see a lot of injuries in the legs, people getting tossed around,” he says. “I’ve seen a couple of dangerous head, neck, and back injuries.”

Swimmers seeking relief from the heat admit the power of the waves can surprise, and overwhelm them. One teenage girl said, “You can go underwater. You can scrape yourself and hit your head on something.”

The potential for a much worse outcome exists as well.

Olivia Packenham of Walpole was on a family vacation in Wellfleet when her father Richard was slammed by a big wave.

“He was immediately paralyzed,” said Packenham. “He ended up getting to the shoreline and then getting hit by another wave which ended up breaking his neck, and one of the biggest things I heard was someone screaming , ‘that guy is not moving, that guy is not moving.’”

Richard, a Harvard educated lawyer and devoted family man, died from medical complications.

His youngest son Luke relives that day over and over again. “I saw the wave in slow motion and smash his back, and I just couldn’t react.”

The researchers in Delaware found that not only are injuries from waves more common than previously thought, but that three deaths were attributed to the power of the surf.

These findings don’t surprise Dr. Mark DeMatteo, chief of emergency medicine at Jordan Hospital in Plymouth. “The most common types of injuries that you see are fractures and dislocations, usually collar bone fractures or dislocated shoulders and the other kind of injury you can see are lacerations.”

The Delaware researchers found sprains, strains, and blunt organ trauma among the other common problems.

Surprisingly, most injuries happen in the so-called surf zone. This is the shallow stretch between the water’s edge and where the waters break. The depth of the water is usually less than two feet.

A third of the injuries were in swimmers over 45 years of age.

Luke Packenham really doesn’t enjoy the beach anymore. He hopes this study and his family’s experience are a cautionary tale. “I hope people realize there are consequences and it will change your life forever,” he says.

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