Surfing Through Brain Injury
It’s not often surfers turn to the experiences of wide-eyed groms as motivation. We make them sit on the inside and surf the kiddy bowls after school. We heckle them when they get a little too loud in the lineup and never hand them the wave of the day. But one Manhattan Beach surfer has a story and uninhibited energy that can’t be missed. Ethan Ward is a South Bay surfer who, as you’d expect from most boys his age, loves skating and snowboarding, pestering his little sister, Romea and, of course, surfing with his dad. Ask the 10 year old about a life-threatening injury he endured in the fall of 2010 during a surf contest and, refreshingly, he’ll walk you through every detail with an exuberance that could only come from a kid who surfs.
The 2010 Jimmy Miller Memorial Surf Fiesta at El Porto Beach took a scary turn when Ethan, nine years old at the time, asked to go for one last surf after a full day of competing. While Ward paddled out to the lineup an older surfer fell in front of him and lost control of his board. It struck Ethan in the head, sending him straight back to the beach with a massive gash above his eye. A long day in the emergency room and Ethan’s first set of stitches had the Ward family ready to head home. He was cleared by a neurologist and all signs pointed to a sigh of relief and simple “stay out of the water for 3 weeks”. But in spite of having no initial signs of head trauma, the doctor that had been caring for Ethan in the emergency room insisted he stay in the hospital for an MRI. While John and Sig Ward hoped to avoid exposing their son to an MRI at all costs, it was this doctor’s persistence that would prove to save Ethan’s life. The CT Scan showed a fracture in Ethan’s skull and bleeding around the brain that would continue. At nine years old, a boy who had been playing on the beach and competing against friends in The Jimmy just a day earlier would now have to undergo brain surgery.
Ethan’s stay at the hospital lasted four days and was filled with visits from camp surf instructors, members of the Jimmy Miller Foundation, gifts from local surf shops and well wishes from the South Bay community. Nurses would often ask during his stay if he’d give up the lifestyle for other sports after his accident, to which he told them all he’d never think of it. When John Ward asked his son why he wasn’t scared to get back in the water, the simple, proud response he received was “Because surfing is my life, Dad.” But reluctantly Ethan was told he’d have to stay out of the water at least six months.
Eventually the Wards were able to return to their home in Manhattan Beach facing months of recovery. And even after doctors confirmed Ward would eventually be back to 100% physically there was no telling his spirits would be as high. Would he be overly cautious? Scared to skateboard or play other sports? Ethan quickly squashed any doubts when he turned a six month hiatus from the ocean into just four. Shortly before a family trip to Hawaii, John and Ethan got back in the water in PV and completed Ethan’s recovery. Sporting a new helmet and renewed confidence the nine-year-old got right back to competing where he took 4th in his first contest back, just five months after the injury that had landed him in an emergency room. And exactly one year later in October of 2011 Ethan and his team took first place at The Jimmy.
Now Ethan surfs with a helmet every time he enters the water. According to his parents, the helmet offers protection from another accident and peace of mind for them but also seems to have given their son more confidence. Both parents see a surfer who is smarter, more mature and charges harder than ever. He looks out for others in the lineup and calls himself an “investigator” in the water, always scanning for potentially dangerous situations. And for a surfer living just blocks away from the crowds of El Porto, a sixth sense for dodging projectile longboards comes in handy.
If you ask Sig Ward now, she doesn’t hesitate to admit that surfing helped her son recover. When he returned to competing, it was what made life “normal” again, and his months out of the water were made bearable by the prospect of that eventual next wave. Surfing is our light at the end of the tunnel. A busy day with two quick waves right before sunset somehow makes the hustle and bustle of life seem worth it all. Especially when you compare it to a day without waves at all. It allows us to move forward, be thankful and put life in perspective when we’re threatened with losing what we love most. It kept Ethan’s spirits high, allowed him to hang on to that same infectious energy, and somehow not even flinch when faced with an experience that would stop most dead in their tracks. Of course this is all preaching to a choir, but how often do you stop while in the lineup and remind yourself of this? How many times have you dodged your own board while taking a wave on the head? How many times has being held under or hitting the bottom kept you from risking that next questionable take off? And how often do you take your next paddle for granted? This is where we learn from Ethan, and how watching his story come full circle has become a source of inspiration for the South Bay community. When it comes down to it, Ethan Ward is a surfer – meaning unlike the landlocked and less fortunate the first question any of us ask when we land in an emergency room isn’t about whether or not everything will be okay. Instead it is and always will be “Doc, when can I get back in the water?”