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Rob Machado helps paralyzed surfer make waves

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    Rob Machado helps paralyzed surfer make waves

    Rob Machado helps paralyzed surfer make waves
    By John Morgan, Spotlight Health, with medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.
    Surfing professional Rob Machado earns his living riding the world's best waves. But now he's helping Jesse Billauer make more important waves.

    With the help of Machado, left, Billauer isn't letting his paralysis keep him from setting his sights on again surfing the famed Bonzai Pipeline.

    After a surfing accident, Billauer is quadriplegic, and Machado is helping his friend raise awareness that life doesn't get wiped out simply because you're wheelchair bound.

    "The surfing world is a tight community, and we heard about Jesse and what happened, and several of us went and visited him in the hospital," says Machado, who led the West Coast surfing team in this summer's X Games. "Here was this promising young amateur surfer who was destined to turn pro and had this tragic accident, and we wanted to give him all the support we could."

    Billauer's accident started on a normal March day in 1996 at a popular California surf spot called Drain Pipes along Zuma Beach, just up the coast from Malibu. He will recount the day and his recovery this weekend when he gives a motivational speech at Malibu High School just down the highway from where he was paralyzed.

    "It was a 6- to 8-foot day," Billauer explains. "I pulled inside the barrel backside, and when I came out, the wave hit me in my back.

    "I didn't have time to put my hands up, and I went head first into the water and hit my head on the bottom sand bar," he recalls. "My whole body went instantly numb and tingly. I was floating face down in the water unable to move at all. Luckily, a wave turned me over and I called for help."

    Billauer was airlifted to UCLA Medical Center where surgeon Rick Delamarter took over.

    "We repaired the damaged bone and ligaments and decompressed the spinal cord, meaning we removed all the pressure from the spinal cord, and then we fused the level that was fractured in order to stabilize it so it couldn't cause re-injury," explains Delamarter, who is medical director at the Spine Institute at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica. "To fuse the area we used bone from Jesse's hip, and then we put a small titanium plate on the neck with a couple of screws to hold it rigid while the fusion took place. Fusion usually takes six to eight weeks to get solid."

    After surgery, the real challenge began.


    The Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation estimates that approximately 250,000 Americans now live with spinal cord injuries. About 11,000 people suffer spinal cord injuries annually, with 56% falling between the ages of 16 and 30. More than 80% of all cases are male.

    Billauer's spinal cord injury was severe, leaving him quadriplegic with complete paralysis below C-6, the sixth cervical vertebra. The difficult process of rehabilitation was looming in front of him like an angry storm surge.

    "Surfing was my life - I wanted to be a pro surfer, but once I got hurt I had to figure what direction I was going to go in life," says Billauer, who began surfing at age 9 and by 17, when he was injured, was on the verge of turning pro. "All my focus had been on surfing," the 24-year-old explains. "After I got hurt, I realized that I needed to get back in the water. It took me a few years to get strong enough."

    Weakness is part of the problem of recovery.

    "Atrophy is going to occur when the muscle is not innervated, when there is a cut spinal cord," Delamarter states. "More important is to keep the joints mobile and keep the tendons, ligaments and muscles movable so they don't get contractures and get stiff."

    Bone and muscle changes, as does blood pressure, simply as a consequence of sitting in a wheelchair.

    "And your ability to exercise is limited," reports Susan Harkema, director of the Human Locomotion Research Center in the Department of Neurology at UCLA. "You can't just go to the local gym because it's not equipped for you. But it is important to understand that recovery is an ongoing process. Previously the thinking was that there really wasn't much we could do after six months. We now know that the neural plasticity can occur many years after the injury."

    Billauer committed to rehabilitation at an early stage and continues his therapy still.

    "I just started a new leg therapy with muscle stimulators that pedals a bike to keep up the muscles and cardiovascular health," Billauer says.

    And with a little help from his friends, he's also surfing again.

    Pipe dreams

    "Jesse called me out of the blue and told me he wanted to go surfing," Machado says. "I thought it was pretty intense and of course I said, 'Definitely. Let's go for it.'"

    But neither Machado nor Billauer had any real plan for how to do it. So they did what all good surfers do - they winged it.

    "He'd just gotten a long board from Al Merrick of Channel Islands Surfboards but that was it," explains Machado, who appeared in the recent surfing documentary Step into Liquid with Jesse. "So I went and had some foot straps put on the side of the board so he could put his elbows into them. It was weird how well it worked."

    "It's an 8-2 board," says Billauer, defining the board's length in feet and inches. "And I lie down on it and I prop myself up on my elbows,". "I turn by leaning side to side with my weight."

    Machado, who often surfs the most perfect waves in the world, admits that taking Billauer out surfing for the first time after his injury was "beyond anything I've ever done surfing."

    "It was about knee-high, dead glassy," Machado describes. "We waited for the absolute perfect day at Cardiff Reef - not a cloud in the sky because another factor with Jesse is warmth. He loses body heat really fast so we wanted it to be as warm as possible. I paddled us straight out and he caught two little whitewaters, and Jesse was instantly saying, 'It's on. Let's do this.'"

    They ended up surfing for three hours that day. Now Billauer wants to surf the famous Banzai Pipeline in Hawaii.

    "Pipeline is the best known wave in the world," Billauer states. "I know it's dangerous, but I want to go out there and get barreled. I surfed Pipe before I got hurt, so going back there represents happiness at being able to challenge myself and explore what I can do now after my injury."

    "The scarier part is we're contemplating it," jokes Machado, who is featured in the new surf movie Campaign which premiered Wednesday. "But you know, you take me, Kelly Slater and Shane Dorian, and if we all paddle Jesse out at Pipe he couldn't be in better hands. I'm sure we'll take him out on a smaller day and catch a few."

    If Billauer has time.

    He has his own clothing line and foundation, Life Rolls On, to raise awareness and funding for spinal cord injury. Billauer says he wants people to realize that no matter what happens to you it is still possible to accomplish your dreams.

    "I want to educate the public about spinal cord injury and let them know that I'm still surfing and jet skiing," Billauer explains. "Hopefully I will inspire people to live life to the fullest and not to take life for granted but to be happy for your health and your friends and family."

    Very cool story, Max.
    I read up on this guy a while back.
    Just yesterday I saw a couple of guys sitting on something that looked like a surfboard version of a monoski. And they were riding HUGE waves. I'm gonna try and find out more info about it, cuz if there's something like that offered out here, I'm all over that.

    "To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all." - Oscar Wilde


      globe did it have a hydrofoil on the bottom
      like a small wing underneath the board?
      i saw that being used in the movie step into liquid,..
      step into liquid
      which is now out on dvd, a great docmentry on surfing that was part of the tribeca film festival this year , see the movie if you get a chance, they also had the section in there with Jesse Billauer getting him back on the board..

      [This message was edited by yonkersguy on 11-09-03 at 05:31 AM.]
      cauda equina