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The Endless Summer Ends : Longtime Surfers Find There's a Medical Price to Pay for the Sport's Lifestyle

March 24, 1994|ADRIAN MAHER

Johnny Fain was Malibu's golden boy of surfing in the late 1960s. Known for an aggressive surfing style of quick, slashing turns and "hang-ten" riding (10 toes over the nose of the board), Fain became one of the world's top surfers, and was rewarded with endorsements and years of travel on the pro-surf tour.

The only child of "Lassie" screenwriter Jeanne Bartlett, Fain grew up in Malibu Colony and parlayed his blond good looks and surfing prowess into small movie and stunt parts in such surf cult classics as "Muscle Beach Party," "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini" and "Beach Blanket Bingo."

But during years of a rough-and-tumble surfer lifestyle and prolonged exposure to the natural elements, Fain also racked up a litany of surfing-related ailments.

More than a dozen cancerous and precancerous skin lesions and moles have been removed from his face and body. He has endured three ear operations and four surgeries to remove growths from his eyes, and hundreds of stitches from surfboard collisions. And now a recent operation to repair a hip eroded from years of battering has left Fain on crutches.

The great surfer reluctantly admits he has been temporarily beached.

"You have to believe you're invincible to reach a high level of surf expertise," said Fain, 50. "You have to go beyond what a normal person thinks of as a human limit. I am paying a price for that attitude."

So, too, are many other surfers, enthusiasts and their doctors say.

The sport of surfing, with an estimated half-million Southern California devotees, has always radiated images of fun and good health, of bronzed bodies, youthful good looks and pristine beaches. But as the baby-boomer innovators of the sport grow older, some of them say a troublesome array of maladies has emerged.

"As opposed to the blunt trauma of a football injury, many surfers suffer from a series of cumulative ailments," said Steve Hoch, editor of Surfer magazine, one of the sport's leading journals. Hoch, 38, who has been surfing for more than 20 years, has suffered from chronic back, ear and nasal problems. "It's almost death from a thousand cuts. Though our engines are still humming, our shells are a little nicked."

County officials say it is difficult to determine the extent of surfer illnesses and ailments, which enthusiasts attribute to both man-made and natural elements.

"We don't have such a file," said Dr. Laurene Mascola, chief of the acute communicable disease control unit of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. "Some surfers don't go to a doctor, and if they did, doctors have an abysmal rate of reporting routine diseases and illnesses. We would really need a special study and we don't have the money."

In general, surfers tend to be a fit bunch with strong muscles and lungs derived from hours of grueling paddling against the tides.

Still, many surfers and the doctors who treat them say plenty of anecdotal evidence attests to the sport's health consequences.

Middle-aged surfers in particular say they must cope with a growing history of skin ulcers, reef cuts, lacerations from surfboard fins and surfer knots and craters--bumps and cuts slow to heal from constant paddling and water exposure.

In December, San Francisco physician Mark Renneker co-authored a book, entitled "Sick Surfers," that outlines a comprehensive list of surfer maladies. Renneker founded the Surfer's Medical Assn. in 1986, a Northern California-based international organization of roughly 700 members, including 400 medical professionals, who are dedicated to improving the health of surfers.

Renneker has chronicled such surfer ailments as chronic neck and back problems, fungal infections from wet suits, fatty growths on the rib cage from paddling and so-called "ice-cream headaches"--migraines brought on by dunking under huge waves in frigid water.

The book also attempts to answer surfer queries about angioedema--the swelling of the extremities in cold water--and even addresses the consequences of ingesting surf wax, which is used to improve the grip on the boards.

One of the most common maladies, however, is "surfers' ear," or exostosis.

Mostly afflicting cold-water surfers, it is caused when excess water in the ear canal evaporates in windy conditions and chills the ear. The body responds by growing extra bone in the ear canal, obstructing hearing.

Ear specialists in seaside communities are well aware of the affliction, which is treated by drilling away the excess bone.

"I must get two to three surfers a month who have to have their ears drilled out with a high-speed diamond burr--it's very painful," said Dr. Justin MacCarthy, a partner in a Pacific Palisades practice. "I try to tell them to wear ear plugs, but they won't do it. They say it affects their sense of balance."

Surfers have their own descriptions of the pain of the operation and its aftermath. "It's like a cherry bomb going off inside your head, but you're still living," Fain said.

Exposure to the sun has also taken a toll.

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