The Coast News Group
Exercise physiologist Betty Michalewicz (right) began the surf therapy program four years ago. Photo by Promise Yee

Surf lessons help to heal wounded warriors

DEL MAR — By 9:30 a.m. most Thursdays, a shade tent, table and coffee are set up, boards and wetsuits are ready, and a few dozen surfers meet up to hit the waves at 13th Street. 

The group of surfing buddies is an unconventional physical therapy program for injured military men and women at the Naval Medical Center San Diego.

The program began four years ago when a patient of exercise physiologist Betty Michalewicz said he wanted to go surfing. Michalewicz is a surfer herself and got an OK for the out-of-the-box idea of using surfing as therapy for men and women recovering from amputations, brain injuries and other severe injuries.

“It’s an extremely demanding body workout,” Michalewicz said. “It develops tremendous

cardiovascular strength. It’s a great workout all together.”

The sport has proven to do more than build physical strength in men and women who are recovering. It also gives them confidence in their physical abilities and socialization skills, lessens the need for pain medication, results in better sleep, and gives a sense of freedom in the water.

“Traditional therapy focuses on the injury, on what’s wrong,” Michalewicz said. “Here they’re not focusing on the injury at all. They’re thinking about the surfboard and waves instead of what’s wrong with them.”

Lessons are taught on soft foam surfboards, which are customized with handles as needed to allow riders to surf independently.

“We create them as we go forward,” Michalewicz said. “The goal is for them to surf on their own as soon as possible.”

Surf therapy is started if an individual expresses interest and is medically cleared to begin. Many men and women in the program have never surfed.

Staff Sgt. Dorian Gardner, 27, has served in the U.S. Marine Corps for nine years. He was hit by a mortar in October 2010, which caused him to lose his left eye and did severe damage to his right eye. After two surgeries he began visual and physical therapy. Surfing is now a part of his therapy.

Gardner describes his first day surfing. “It was a lot of falling, coughing up saltwater and fun,” he said. “I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Gardner said he can paddle out and ride waves in fairly well, but due to his limited vision cannot read the water by himself, so he teams up with a buddy to surf.

“It’s you, the board and the waves,” Gardner said. “It simplifies everything.”

Gardner is working as a military intern and plans to return to service with the help of adaptive equipment in six months.

Corp. Daniel Riley, 26, has served in the Marine Corps for five years. He stepped on an IED in December 2010 and lost both legs, half of his left hand and sustained substantial internal injuries. He will be medically retired from the military in three months and continue to receive medical care and military benefits.

Riley surfs independently and is also training to compete in a triathlon. He jokingly said the first time he surfed he had to be dragged out of the water to get him to stop.

“Not having legs doesn’t make a difference,” Riley said.

He added that after surfing he was finally able to get eight hours of sleep and is now off his pain medications.

“It’s fun out there,” Riley said. No one is feeling sorry for us. They push you off your board and give you a hard time like everybody else.”

Riley said his immediate plans after retirement are to take some time off to continue triathlon training and surfing before he enrolls in college.

Michalewicz said the camaraderie the surfing community gives men and women is vitally important to troops who retire from the military.

“Many come back and follow this lifestyle independently after they have moved on with life and a job,” Michalewicz said. “They join the community of surfers on their own.”

She added that the program is not for everyone, but when it works for someone it has a tremendous impact.

“It’s joyful,” Michalewicz said. “Everybody leaves the beach having bigger smiles on their faces than when they got there. Our guys might be missing a leg or two, but surfing helps them realize how much they can do.”

The Naval Medical Center works with the Del Mar Lifeguards who oversee water safety and provide a beach wheelchair. The program also enlists the help of Armed Services YMCA volunteer surf instructors. Some of the instructors are injured veterans who learned to surf through the program.