MISSION VIEJO — It's called the impact zone--that often treacherous area of churning white water just offshore where powerful waves finally surge and crash. That's where Salt Creek Beach lifeguards first spotted the limp body of Robert Feldman July 18.
Feldman still vividly recalls that tragic moment when his day turned into a bodysurfer's nightmare. He took off on the wave late and was pitched "over the falls" head first into only three feet of water.
"I remember the crash of hitting the bottom," recalled Feldman as he rested, surrounded by his family in the intensive care unit at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center. "The next thing I knew I was immersed in the water. I thought it was the end. I was struggling, but it's a very strange feeling, not being able to move my limbs."
An active athlete, bodysurfer and Laguna Beach physician, Feldman, 31, is now a partial quadriplegic. Instead of enjoying a long-planned trip to Telluride, Colo., to relive his honeymoon with his wife of one year, Kendra, Feldman has spent his life since the accident lying on his back at the hospital.
A muscular, 6-foot-2, 215-pounder unaccustomed to backing down from a physical challenge, Feldman offers a warning to even the most experienced of swimmers.
"If this can happen to me, it can happen to anybody," he said from his bed.
For the Feldmans, that hot, humid Saturday had started like most of their Saturdays. But after an early morning haircut, Robert substituted a bodysurfing trip to Salt Creek to cool off for his usual basketball session at Main Beach.
Kendra Feldman used the free time to shop for their upcoming trip to Telluride. When she returned to her new hilltop Laguna Beach home, however, an ominous message was waiting on the answer machine.
"It wasn't explicit, it just said call the trauma center. Robert had suffered a surfing injury," Kendra Feldman said. "I knew something bad had happened. I just lost it."
Today, the Feldmans can't help but think back. Maybe if Robert had played basketball and not gone to the beach, their lives would not have taken this turn. Maybe if Kendra had gone with him.
"I usually go with Bob," Kendra said. "I don't usually go in the water, but this time for some reason I decided not to go."
The three lifeguards who pulled Feldman from the surf not only saved him from drowning, but also gave the young internist a chance for physical therapy, possible rehabilitation and a return to work.
Dr. Thomas Shaver, the head of the trauma unit at Mission Hospital and one of the doctors who treated Feldman, said the lifeguards did the most important thing in any emergency: Get the patient breathing fast before permanent brain damage sets in.
"You have to hand it to the lifeguards. It's a tremendous role they play," Shaver said. "Here is a perfect example of how important it is to get a patient breathing again. If you wait for paramedics, you might be able to get the heart back but the brain could be gone."
Lifeguard Charley Hoey, 19, of San Clemente was the first to reach Feldman. A stroke of luck had Hoey in the water taking a swim break about 2:30 p.m. while fellow lifeguards Marc Panis and Mark Pekarek covered for him at Tower 4, an area of the beach just north of the Selva steps.
"I was out in the water when I saw him floating in the impact zone," Hoey said. "I got to him really quick, in about six seconds, and grabbed him and turned him over. His lips were purple and his fingernails were turning blue and he wasn't breathing. Right away I assumed it was a spinal injury."
Lifeguards are trained to assume that someone as helpless as Feldman could have some sort of injury to the spine. Assume the worst, they are told.
"You don't find somebody floating like that in shallow water in the impact zone without some sort of major injury," said Panis, 28, a 12-year lifeguard from Huntington Beach. "We treat them as if they are seriously hurt. If it turns out to be not so serious, then that's fine."
Because lifeguards assume the worst, statistics are not completely reliable as indicators of how many people are seriously injured in the surf each year. In 1990 lifeguards on county beaches treated 39 people for possible spinal injuries, compared to only 12 throughout 1991. Through June 30 of this year there were only five possible spinal injuries, and there have been another "five or six" since then, according to Logan Lockaby, a spokesman for U.S. Ocean Safety, a private company that patrols beaches by contract with the county.
"We had so few in 1991 because there was not much surf that year," Lockaby said. "The numbers seem to reflect the surf we experience each summer."
In Feldman's case, the collision with the shallow, sandy bottom crushed one of the cranial discs at the top of his spine and herniated another, leaving him able to move his arms but not his hands or fingers. He also has limited movement in his left leg but not, as yet, his right one.