Published on July 18, 2016

Doctors who surf: Rx for ocean fun

Doctors who surf: Rx for ocean fun

Dr. Spillane surfing

Dr. Spillane

Hyannis thoracic surgeon Jeffrey Spillane, MD, FACS, has been a self-described ‘water rat’ since he was a kid. He began surfing at age 14 and windsurfing just after college. Fortunate enough to hone his surfing skills when he practiced medicine in Hawaii, today he’s also a stand-up paddle (SUP) boarder.

His passion for these sports provides a welcome respite from his work.

“I need the ocean for a counterbalance to all the other aspects of my work as a physician,” he said. “But I don’t just run into the ocean. I stop at the edge of the water every time and ask permission. It’s a Hawaiian tradition and it gives me a chance to watch and think first.”

Hyannis Internal medicine and pulmonary medicine physician Scott Slater, MD, is also passionate about ocean sports. He began windsurfing as a teenager and loves the challenge of using wind and waves for power. That fascination eventually drew him into kiteboarding, where the surfer is pulled across the water by a kite 30 meters up in the sky.

It’s a sport that provides some thrilling rides and an opportunity to explore the Cape’s waves and inlets.

Dr. Slater paddle board

Dr. Slater

“Cape Cod is the optimal place for winds from south, west, north, northeast,” said Dr. Slater. So it was a dream come true for him to join Cape Cod Healthcare after training at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Both Drs. Spillane and Slater practice at Cape Cod Hospital, and while they revel in the thrill of riding the waves, they temper their enthusiasm with common sense – something they urge others to do as well.

The two physicians’ experiences on the water have taught them important lessons about how to stay safe in the ever-changing ocean environment.

Dr. Spillane’s Hawaiian tradition offers practical benefits as well. He advises people to “stare at the water before you go out – be aware of the rip currents, what the tide is doing, swell sets, winds. Talk to the lifeguards. They are there all day watching the ocean.”

Dr. Slater emphasized the need for stamina when pursuing water sports.

“When I’m kiting, I go out for two or three hours. If my equipment fails, I have to be able to swim to shore. I’m prepared to spend as much time in the water as necessary,” he said.

Many people are unaware of the risks that lurk beneath the ocean’s alluring sparkle. Rapidly changing tides, dehydration and even hypothermia pose threats most people don’t think about as they gather their towels and beach chairs.

The tides can catch sunbathers unaware and leave them surrounded by water. Rip currents can pull swimmers out to sea leaving them with a dangerous struggle to get back to shore. Tragically, 100 people drown each year in the U.S. from rip currents, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association.

Drs. Spillane and Slater offer these precautions:

Watch for symptoms of hypothermia. “Even in mid-July, I’ve seen surfers get hypothermia and start drifting out. They get confused and lose their bearings,” Dr. Spillane said. “Tourists need to understand the water is cold.” Dr. Slater agrees. He wears a thick enough wet suit to spend an hour or two in the water, even in the summer.

Quench your thirst. Dr. Slater drinks a 16-oz. bottle of water before he goes out kiting. Sometimes he even wears a hands-free hydration backpack.

Respect the ever-changing ocean. “Ocean awareness is something you just have to believe in and practice,” Dr. Spillane said. “It is truly a fluid environment. It changes all the time.”