It had been a good 10 years since Alysse Einbender had been in the ocean. That was before the spinal stroke in 2004 that left her paralyzed below the ribcage.
On Sunday, she was back on the board——riding a wave back to the beach at Wildwood Crest, enwreathed in a cloud of spray, with a broad, excited smile on her face. The board soared through a chute of volunteers ready to leap to her aid if she ran into trouble.
“It was great,” she said after her ride, the smile still very much in place. “It was like no time had passed.”
Einbender was one of about 48 persons with disabilities who took part in They Will Surf Again, a free, one-day event sponsored for the fourth year by MossRehab on what turned out to be a picture-perfect day on the beach at Wildwood Crest. Three hundred volunteers joined the effort, including 35 from MossRehab.
Decked out in a bright yellow neoprene tee (known as a rash guard) embossed with the MossRehab logo, Einbender, a Montgomery County landscape architectural designer, confessed to some jitters before her ride. “It was a complete unknown,” she said. “Since I’m paralyzed below the ribcage, I don’t know where my lower half is, or what it’s doing. I could feel that I was on the board, but I couldn’t tell whether I was centered or not. And because I can’t arch my back, it was definitely hard to keep my head and shoulders up and out of the water.”
All the same, it was reassuring to know that there were well-qualified volunteers on either side of her as her board rushed to the beach—and a little flattering. “I’m not used to being the center of attention like that,” she said. Was it worth it? Oh, yeah. “I’ll be sore tomorrow, but it’ll be a nice, achy sore.”
That’s just the kind of enthusiastic response that Chad DeSatnick and Kerry O’Connor want to hear. DeSatnick, a Cape May Real Estate agent, is the local organizer, and O’Connor, Einstein senior communications manager, introduced the idea to MossRehab.
DeSatnick’s involvement couldn’t be more personal.
“I was surfing with a couple of buddies along the east end of Cape May. It was September 30, 2001, at the same time as Hurricane Humberto. The waves were as good as they get. I had caught maybe three or four waves. The last wave I caught, I rode it too close to the shore. It looked like it was about a foot and a half higher than my head. I made a split-second decision to dive down below the wave.”
The water turned out to be shallower than DeSatnick had estimated. “My whole 215 pounds landed on wet sand. It was a force strong enough to shatter C5 and C6. (The fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae, located in the neck.)”
DeSatnick went to see his general physician, who sent him to a radiologist. The radiologist told him that he saw signs of subluxation (a partial dislocation), but that can occur naturally in childbirth. He sent him on his way, advising him to "go drive to the medical supply store and pick a neck brace." Still concerned, DeSatnick returned to his doctor, who referred him to a different radiologist, who took posterior and anterior X-rays. The images showed that the vertebrae had been fractured. From there, he headed to Atlantic City Trauma Center for a consultation with a neurosurgeon, who ordered an MRI. “Things got a lot more serious at that point,” he said.
DeSatnick was hospitalized immediately, fitted with a halo and put in traction. Three days later, he underwent surgery to fuse his cervical vertebrae together with titanium rods. Before the operation, his surgeon frankly described possible outcomes. “He said I would never surf again—and there was a chance of paralysis during surgery, and I might not even walk again.”
Thankfully, the worst didn’t happen. Eight months of rehab followed, and DeSatnick’s mobility slowly returned—and with grit and determination, DeSatnick was able to prove the surgeon’s other prediction wrong: “I got back on the surfboard two and a half years later.”
DeSatnick’s unabated passion for surfing ultimately led to his involvement in They Will Surf Again.
“One day, I was hanging out at my house, scrolling through surfing magazines,” DeSatnick recalls. “I stumbled upon Life Rolls On.”
DeSatnick was particularly intrigued by They Will Surf Again. Along with three friends from New Jersey, De Satnick flew out to support Life Rolls On at their annual fundraiser, Night by the Ocean, and also to play in the LRO Golf Tournament at Malibu Country Club. DeSatnick and his friends launched Life Rolls On TWSA in New Jersey in 2005, and the East Coast Golf Tournament in 2006.
DeSatnick’s accident taught him a valuable lesson: “Life is short. Life is precious. Why Wait? You don’t know what tomorrow is gonna bring. I saw motivation and hope and an opportunity that was very appropriate for my injury. Since I got hurt surfing, it was just natural that I get involved.”
O’Connor came to They Will Surf Again by a roundabout route. In 2004, he spent a number of weeks on a tall ship challenge from Charleston, S.C., to Philadelphia. The ship was equipped to accommodate crew members with disabilities. “That was really my first experience with persons with disabilities. I was amazed at what they were able to do. That’s what really inspired me to get involved in the disability community. That’s why I got into rehabilitation public relations.”
O’Connor has been surfing since he was in his 20s. Like DeSatnick, O’Connor had heard about They Will Surf Again, and it aroused his interest. O’Connor became a volunteer. Later on, when O’Connor arrived at MossRehab, he broached the subject of involvement in They Will Surf Again with Moss leadership.
“They could not have been more enthusiastic or supportive,” O’Connor said. “They said: ‘Just go.’”
They Will Surf Again found a receptive and enthusiastic audience throughout MossRehab. Moss nurses, doctors and therapists, as well as family and friends, volunteer to assist surfers in and out of their wheelchairs, help them in and out of their wetsuits, and safely maneuver them onto and off their boards. They’re there, too, along with many other volunteers, to assist surfers if they fall off their boards.
“These are people who use their skills Monday through Friday,” O’Connor said. “To volunteer to drive all the way down to the beach, to donate their time, is truly amazing. They care about their work—it doesn’t end when they punch out at the end of the day.”
The event attracts many other volunteers, a lot of them surfers—including O’Connor—but, he said, “We (surfers) don’t have that kind of training. We handle the surfing stuff—wave selection, water safety and placement on the board. MossRehab staff know how to put surfers at ease, and make them comfortable. They Will Surf Again is always thrilled to have them involved.”
When he sees the excitement on the faces of surfers like Einbender, he knows that all of the effort—and fretting about the weather, as he did last Sunday—is truly worthwhile.
“As a surfer, I know the joy of riding a wave. The first time I stood up on a wave and rode it all the way into the beach, I was hooked. I ‘get it.’ For a lot of them, it’s their first time on a board, maybe their first time exposed to active sports. When they catch a wave, and you see that look on their faces—the look that said ‘this is amazing’—I can relate to that.”
Getting set up for the next big wave
Jesse Billauer and Chad DeSatnick
Each surfer had plenty of assistance.
Catch a wave and you're sittin' on top of the world.