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Ocean's Dangerous Doorstep

Physician Paul Cowan sees them coming in waves.

“We would have between a half dozen and a dozen in a one- to two-hour period,” Cowan said. “It seemed to be very random.”

On certain days, his emergency room at Beebe Medical Center in Lewes, Delaware fills up with injured beachgoers. Other days, not a single one comes in. Their ailments range in severity -- a dislocated shoulder here, a ruptured spleen there. A few have simple cuts and bruises. Some of the most devastating injuries are among those who arrive with spinal damage.

“If you see a young person that has a permanent neurologic deficit from a surf injury, it makes you pay attention,” said Cowan, who serves as chief of the department of emergency medicine at Beebe.

The cause is always the same, the ocean, but not nasty rip tides or the far depths. These patients are injured in what’s known as the surf zone, the area between where you first dip your toes in the water and where the waves break. It’s the area where the majority of people play in the ocean and where the majority of injuries occur. Last year, 429 people were injured in the surf zone of Delaware’s beaches.

Cowan wanted to know what factors seemed to make some days more dangerous than others, so he contacted Wendy Carey at the Delaware Sea Grant College Program at the University of Delaware's Hugh R. Sharp Campus in Lewes. Along with others, Cowan and Carey are now analyzing numerous factors.

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, they record ocean conditions, like water temperature and time elapsed between waves, weather conditions, details of incidents in which beachgoers are injured, including the time of day and day of the week, and characteristics of the victims such as age and hometown.

“We’re trying to cover all of our bases about all of these possible correlations and interactions,” Carey said.

The researchers suspect no one factor makes the ocean more dangerous and are looking for the ingredients that add up to brew a deadly cocktail. Since they began recording data at the beginning of last summer, two people have died.

Cowan and Carey pool resources for their research. Cowan and his hospital’s trauma registrar, Michelle Arford-Granholm, contribute the medical data. Between its main hospital in Lewes and its walk-in center in Millville, Beebe treats any surf zone injury in the area that requires a doctor’s care.

Area beach patrols provide data including estimates of the number of people in the water each day. Local paramedics and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control contribute information as well, and Doug Miller, associate professor in UD’s School of Marine Science and Policy, synthesizes the statistics.

Given the level of participation, Cowan and Carey feel assured that almost no one gets injured in the surf zone at a Delaware beach without them knowing.

Data collection will continue through the end of next summer. So far, a least one contributing factor has become clear. The majority of those injured live out of state and those Delawareans who are injured tend to be from northern, non-coastal communities. These visitors often do not know basic safety tips -- for instance, do not turn your back to the waves.

“There are so many people who are not used to the beach,” Carey said. “They think they can stand up against the power of the waves.”

Swimmers only learn they cannot when they are injured.

“A three- or four-foot wave has the same potential energy as a small subcompact car,” Cowan said.

Once the team completes its data collection, it hopes to determine the greatest risk factors, develop a computer program to forecast the most dangerous days, implement a warning system for lifeguards and develop a public education plan.

While educating the right groups could be tricky, since most do not live in Delaware’s beach towns, Cowan and Carey see it as a worthy cause with a great potential benefit.

“The ocean is pure unregulated Mother Nature and that will never change,” Cowan said. “The only thing that can change is the behavior of people in the water.”

Andrea Boyle
University of Delaware Media Relations

Andrea Boyle | Newswise Science News
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