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Maui beaches lead state in spinal injuries

Makena had most in state with 40 from 2009 to 2017

Ocean safety officers advise all beachgoers to adhere to and obey all warning signs. Nine Maui County beaches are protected with lifeguard towers, including Makena (Big Beach), but beachgoers are encouraged to take their own safety measures. The Maui News / DAKOTA GROSSMAN photo

MAKENA — Seven of the top 15 spinal injury-prone beaches in Hawaii are located in Maui County — and Makena leads the list, according to the Hawaii Trauma Registry.

“Hopefully, we are able to get the message out and try to prevent spinal injuries,” Jeff Later, the Trauma Program manager at Maui Memorial Medical Center, said Tuesday morning. “It’s such a preventable thing, but the impact on the person and their family can be big.”

To spread awareness of beach safety, the Maui County Department of Fire and Public Safety held a spinal injury prevention workshop Tuesday at Big Beach, part of the Beach Safety Week campaign that launched statewide on Sunday.

According to the Hawaii Trauma Registry, Makena led the state with 40 recorded spinal injuries from 2009 to 2017 (that includes 33 in Big Beach, one in Little Beach and 6 in unspecified areas in Makena). Hapuna Beach on Hawaii island was second in the state with 31 recorded spinal injuries, and Kaanapali Beach was tied with Hawaii island’s Laaloa Beach and Oahu’s Sandy Beach for third highest with 20.

The remaining top Maui County beaches were Wailea (13), followed by the three Kamaole Beach Parks combined (12), Polo (11), D.T. Fleming (6) and Charley Young (5).

Cary Kayama, Ocean Safety Bureau operations manager, tells visitors the safest ways to enter the water and what to do when boogie-boarding in big waves. Kayama said that many spinal injuries occur when the waves are smaller because beachgoers tend to get more confident and let their guard down. The Maui News / DAKOTA GROSSMAN photo

These statistics do not include all other possible injuries that can occur while at the beach.

Depending on where and “how the injury happens,” Later said that a spinal injury can lead to neck, head and back pain, as well as swelling, bruising, difficulty breathing, numbness and paralysis, or death. There are around 20 types of spinal injuries.

Later added that in 2018, Maui Memorial Medical Center treated a combined total of 38 tossed by wave (TBW) spinal injury cases. There were 34 the year before that. So far this year, 18 cases have been treated.

Ocean Safety officers, or lifeguards, are on duty every day at select beaches from 8 a.m. to 4:45 pm. There are nine guarded beaches on Maui with year-round lifeguard towers: Kanaha, Baldwin, Hookipa, Makena, Kamaole Beach Parks I, II and III, Hanakaoo (Canoe) Beach, and D.T. Fleming. Hana Bay has a tower during the Summer and Winter Pals Program days only.

The Ocean Safety Bureau operations manager, Cary Kayama, said that most spinal injuries occur while beachgoers are bodysurfing or boogie-boarding on the shore break.

And surprisingly enough, the injuries occur when the waves are smaller because, Kayama said, beachgoers tend to feel more confident about going into the water, which then leads to them letting their guard down.

Additionally, visitors experience the majority of reported spinal injuries, which stresses the importance of adhering to all safety measures before entering the water.

“One of the reports I do are tourists versus locals. So, in the past two years, I think it’s about 100 tourists to six locals who get spinal injuries,” said Maui County Ocean Safety Capt. Zach Edlao. “But those six locals are usually skimboarders.

. . . A lot of (tourists) have never been to the ocean, so they don’t know the conditions and a lot of them stand in the impact zone, which is where a lot of the injuries occur.”

Edlao said that on days with higher risk ocean conditions, “we stop people we see with boogie boards before they even get into the water” and let them know the potential dangers.

“(Makena) beach can be small, but then all of a sudden a freak set comes and people get caught,” he said. “There’s a lot of injuries that happen, but it’s dependent on the crowd on that day. . . . A lot of people just see Maui as beautiful and they just want to jump in right away but they don’t know the harm of the waves.”

From Sunday to Saturday, presentations and workshops are being provided in Maui, Hawaii, Kauai and Honolulu counties, giving beachgoers an opportunity to learn about safety precautions from their local ocean safety officers.

Safety tips include:

• Know your physical capabilities and limits.

• Do not attempt to jump over the waves or stand still upon impact with a wave. When a large wave comes, do a “duck dive” underneath the wave and come up behind it.

• Enter or exit the water between large wave sets.

• Enter the water at an angle instead of straight on.

• When bodysurfing or boogie-boarding in a wave, protect your head and neck during a nosedive to reduce the risk of injury upon impact.

• Pay attention to the shore break and never turn away from the ocean.

• Pay attention to all warning signs located in parking lots and on the beach.

• Listen to any lifeguard announcements if at a guarded beach.

• Understand that the use of drugs and/or alcohol will increase the risk of injury or drowning.

• When in doubt, don’t go out.

While Wednesday’s workshop was specifically on spinal injury prevention, public safety officers also provided information on snorkel safety, rip currents, shark attacks, hitting coral reefs or rocks and emergency procedures.

For emergencies when there is no lifeguard on duty, call 911.

Visit hawaiibeachsafety.com/maui for current weather, surf, public safety alerts and current beach conditions at the nine guarded Maui beaches.

For more information about ocean safety, visit mauicounty.gov/oceansafety.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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