A Surfing PA Leads an Intense Beach Rescue

By Nancy Westbrook-May, PA-C, as told to Sarah Yahr Tucker

March 10, 2023


Emergencies happen anywhere, anytime, and sometimes medical professionals find themselves in situations where they are the only ones who can help. Is There a Doctor in the House? is a Medscape series telling these stories.

As a lifeguard during college and then a physician assistant in emergency medicine for almost three decades, people often ask how I deal with emergency situations. I tell them the emotions turn off; skills and training take over. That is exactly what happened one day while I was surfing.

There's a famous surf spot called Old Man's on San Onofre beach in north San Diego County. It has nice, gentle waves that people say are similar to Waikiki in Hawaii. Since the waves are so forgiving, a lot of older people surf there. I taught my boys and some friends how to surf there. Everyone enjoys the water. It's just a really fun vibe.

Nancy Westbrook-May

In September of 2008, I was at Old Man's surfing with friends. After a while, I told them I was going to catch the next wave in. When I rode the wave to the beach, I saw an older guy waving his arms above his head, trying to get the lifeguard's attention. His friend was lying on the sand at the water's edge, unconscious. The lifeguards were about 200 yards away in their truck. Since it was off-season, they weren't in the nearby towers.

I threw my board down on the sand and ran over. The guy was blue in the face and had some secretions around his mouth.  He wasn't breathing and had no pulse. I told his friend to get the lifeguards.

I gave two rescue breaths, and then started CPR. The waves were still lapping against his feet. I could sense people gathering around, so I said, "Okay, we're going to be hooking him up to electricity, let's get him out of the water." I didn't want him in contact with the water that could potentially transmit that electricity to anyone else.

Many hands reached in and we dragged him up to dry sand. When we pulled down his wetsuit, I saw an old midline sternotomy incision on his chest and I thought, Oh man, he's got a cardiac history. I said, "I need a towel," and suddenly there was a towel in my hand. I dried him off and continued doing CPR.

The lifeguard truck pulled up and in my peripheral vision I saw two lifeguards running over with their first aid kit. While doing compressions, I yelled over my shoulder, "Bring your AED! Get your oxygen!" They ran back to the truck.

At that point, a young woman came up and said, "I'm a nuclear medicine tech. What can I do?" I asked her to help me keep his airway open. I positioned her at his head, and she did a chin lift.

The two lifeguards came running back. One was very experienced, and he started getting the AED ready and putting the pads on.  The other lifeguard was younger. He was nervous and shaking, trying to figure out how to turn on the oxygen tank. I told him, “Buddy, you better figure that out real fast."

The AED said there was a shockable rhythm so it delivered a shock. I started compressions again. The younger lifeguard finally figured out how to turn on the oxygen tank. Now we had oxygen, a bag valve mask, and an AED. We let our training take over and quickly melded together as an efficient team.

Two minutes later the AED analyzed the rhythm and administered another shock. More compressions. Then another shock and compressions. I had so much adrenaline going through my body that I wasn't even getting tired.

By then I had been doing compressions for a good 10 minutes. Finally, I asked, "Hey, when are the paramedics going to get here?" And the lifeguard said, "They're on their way." But we were all the way down on a very remote section of beach.

We did CPR on him for what seemed like eternity, probably only 15 to 20 minutes. Sometimes he would get a pulse back and pink up, and we could stop and get a break. But then I would see him become cyanotic. His pulse would become thready, so I would start again.

The paramedics finally arrived and loaded him into the ambulance. He was still blue in the face, and I honestly thought he would probably not survive. I said a quick prayer for him as they drove off.

For the next week, I wondered what happened to him. The next time I was at the beach, I approached some older guys and said, "Hey, I was doing CPR on a guy here last week. Do you know what happened to him?" They gave me a thumbs up sign and said, "He's doing great!" I was amazed!

While at the beach, I saw the nuclear med tech who helped with the airway and oxygen. She told me she'd called her hospital after the incident and asked if they had received a full arrest from the beach. They said, "Yes, he was sitting up, awake and talking when he came through the door."

A few weeks later, the local paper called and wanted to do an interview and get some photos on the beach. We set up a time to meet, and I told the reporter that if he ever found out who the guy was, I would love to meet him. I had two reasons: First, because I had done mouth-to-mouth on him and I wanted to make sure he didn't have any communicable diseases. Second, and this is a little weirder, I wanted to find out if he had an out-of-body experience. They fascinate me.

The reporter called back a few minutes later and said, “You'll never believe this — while I was talking to you, my phone beeped with another call. The person left a message, and it was the guy. He wants to meet you." I was amazed at the coincidence that he would call at exactly the same time.

Later that day, we all met at the beach. I gave him a big hug and told him he looked a lot better than the last time I saw him. He now had a pacemaker/defibrillator. I found out he was married and had three teenage boys (who still have a father). He told me on the day of the incident he developed chest pain, weakness, and shortness of breath while surfing, so he came in and sat down at the water's edge to catch his breath. That was the last thing he remembered. 

When I told him I did mouth-to-mouth on him, he laughed and reassured me that he didn't have any contagious diseases. Then I asked him about an out-of-body experience, like hovering above his body and watching the CPR. "Did you see us doing that?" I asked.  He said, "No, nothing but black. The next thing I remember is waking up in the back of the ambulance, and the paramedic asked me, 'How does it feel to come back from the dead?' " He answered, "I think I have to throw up.”

He was cleared to surf 6 weeks later, and I thought it would be fun to surf with him. But when he started paddling out, he said his defibrillator went off, so he has now retired to golf.  

I've been a PA in the emergency room for 28 years. I've done CPR for so long it's instinctive for me. It really saves lives, especially with the AED. When people say, "You saved his life," I say, "No, I didn't. I just kept him alive and let the AED do its job."

Nancy Westbrook-May, PA-C, is an emergency medicine physician assistant in Newport Beach, California.

Are you a physician with a dramatic medical story outside the clinic? Medscape would love to consider your story for Is There a Doctor in the House? Please email your contact information and a short summary of your story to access@webmd.net.

Read more in the series:

Emergency Birth on a Plane: Two Doctors Earn Their Wings

A Doctor Must Go to Extremes to Save a Choking Victim

A Doctor Intervenes in a Fiery Car Crash

A Freak Impalement by a Model Rocket has This Doctor Scrambling

A Remote Mountain Bike Crash Forces a Doctor to Take Knife in Hand

A Doctor Saves a Drowning Family in a Dangerous River

A Hiking Accident Becomes a Helicopter Disaster

A Beach Drowning and Car Crash Rescue – Back to Back

Half Marathon Heart Crisis – Times Two

A Post-Super Bowl Airplane Emergency

A Plane Crash Interrupts a Doctor's Vacation

For more news, follow Medscape on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.