July 20, 2004 - SCI at the Beach

Project Wipeout saves lives.  Though numbers are impossible to determine, its fight against neck and spinal cord injury at the beach is a continuing one.  Unfortunately, sometimes its message comes too late.
The program was founded in 1979 at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach. With lifeguard symposiums, literature, school talks and booths at county fairs, Project Wipeout works with eight Orange County lifeguard agencies -- as well as those in Los Angeles and San Diego counties -- to reduce spinal cord injuries at the beach.

On Saturday, a 23-year-old Japanese student suffered what may be a paralyzing spinal cord injury off Laguna Beach.

Koichi Mori, a competitive pole-vaulter, was found face-down in the water but conscious. Mark Klosterman, Laguna Beach's lifeguard chief, could not say how Mori was injured but suspects that his neck or head may have struck the shallow bottom.

Mori was in serious condition Monday in intensive care at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo.

Kris Okamoto is disheartened every time she hears of such an accident. As director of Project Wipeout, Okamoto hopes to remind beachgoers that despite the fun and sun, accidents in the water can happen in a split second, sometimes with life-changing results.

Last year, Laguna Beach lifeguards took 32 people with suspected spinal cord injuries to hospitals. Of those, two suffered neurological impairment. Newport Beach lifeguards have similar statistics, taking 30 to 50 people to hospitals each year, said Capt. Jim Turner.

Klosterman said the most common accidents occur from bodysurfing head-first and getting thrown from the face of the wave, striking the neck or head on the bottom; or from people jumping into waves and being thrown backward to the bottom.

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