x

The Trials and Tribulations of a Broken Surfer

by on Monday 16th December, 2013   17388 Visits   Comments

Pre injury, Joe positions himself for a solid set in North Devon. © 2014 Louisa Baird

After falling awkwardly from a rope swing and wrapping his spine around a tree trunk, UK surfer Joe Weghhofer was informed that he would probably spend the rest of his days in a wheelchair. His story of recovery is sure to strike a chord with any surfer who has been kept landlocked due to injury, while reminding the rest of us not to take for granted that which we have.

Words by Joe Weghofer

I guess in many ways injuring myself was always sort of inevitable. I have always done fairly dangerous things with little or no thought to the consequences. That just isn’t the case now. Now I can’t even watch a surf, skate, or snow film without pointing out all the potential spinal injuries.

I broke my back on the 12th of September 2013 and had my surgery on Friday the 13th. Fortunately I’m not too superstitious and anyway the surgery went very well. I won’t go into too much detail about the accident, you just need to know I fell from a rope swing, wrapped myself around a tree in a way the body shouldn’t normally bend and lay there in a ditch for hours.

I won’t go into too much detail about the accident, you just need to know I fell from a rope swing, wrapped myself around a tree in a way the body shouldn’t normally bend and lay there in a ditch for hours.

To be honest the main reason that I can walk today is due to the care I received from my two best friends whilst lying there in those woods. They’re both lifeguards and they prevented me from moving, minimizing the damage to my spinal cord.

That was a pretty tough day for everyone and I need to remember this has affected more people than just me. People like my girlfriend, who had to run to call the ambulance as there was no signal where I fell. She’s been my rock through all of this and kept my head above water when I’ve had dark days.

"Me in Derriford (Plymouth Hospital) with a great guy, Mike, who broke his neck bodyboarding down at Perranporth I think it was. He really helped me cope through those early days, and the long nights."

I was told that I was probably looking at the rest of my life in a wheelchair, but when the surgeon said that the first thing that crossed my mind wasn’t “How will I cope with a job?” or even “Will I ever manage to walk?, it was “Oh shit I’ll never surf again!”.

It was funny actually, I remember getting to hospital about 8 hours after I’d fallen and by this point I was feeling pretty good as the drugs were doing their job. After some initial x-rays the doctors couldn’t see anything wrong and my sister gave me a lot of banter about causing such a big fuss (I had 4 or 5 ambulance crews, 2 fire crews, and a HART unit turn up), but I clearly remember the young doctor’s face as he came back in with the results of a CT scan and informed me, “Yeah, you’ve bust your back”.

I was told that I was probably looking at the rest of my life in a wheelchair, but when the surgeon said that the first thing that crossed my mind wasn’t “How will I cope with a job?” or even “Will I ever manage to walk?, it was “Oh shit I’ll never surf again!”.

To non-surfers this may seem trivial or secondary, but it honestly was my first concern. It was only once I’d had surfing taken away from me that I realised how much it actually meant to me. Once you’re addicted to surfing there’s no going back, you’re hooked. It’s all I think and dream about. Being in the water is much more than just surfing for a sport. As clichéd as it sounds, it really is a solace from your everyday life; it’s pushing yourself, it’s experiencing amazing moments that will stay with you, and you will relive as stories for the rest of your life.

"First time in a wheelchair, after 4-5 weeks of bed rest. I was allowed 15 minutes the first day, then back to bed. It was taken by a very patient nurse!"

All of that was a couple of months ago and I’m now recovering rapidly and am better than I, or my friends and family could ever have hoped for. I am back up on my feet and I’m aiming to be back in the water next year; so I’m currently training and working to get back to where I was in terms of mobility and fitness.

To speed up my recovery I’ve done a lot of physiotherapy and I must say, I have so much time and respect for physiotherapists. They really do a phenomenal job, having to work with people who have just been told that they’re never going to walk or even use their hands again. I’m not sure I’ll ever manage to thank them enough, or any of the people that helped me when I needed it the most. Since being back home, I’ve started going back to my local gym and I’m working out a fitness plan with my trainer to get me back in the water.

When I was back in hospital, just lying there on bed-rest, I would just fantasise about 3ft peeling waves and lines stacked to horizon. Now that I’m back, I just cannot wait for the feeling of sliding down the wave face again, and cheering my friends into close-outs.
It’s incredible to have the local support like I’ve received since returning home, and it really makes me appreciate just how much the local community mean to me. Everyone in Bude has been amazing, like work colleagues and teachers (it was a teacher that taught me to surf in the first place).

Whilst I’m still stuck on dry land, I’ve got more into surf photography. It keeps me sane really, as I can still check the forecast, get all my gear sorted, and head down to the beach, so it feels like the closest thing I can do to surfing. It’s cool seeing how well my friends are surfing. The level of all of the guys around Bude is pretty high, and we have some sick waves that make for great photos.

"Side angle x-ray. You can see the unnatural bend in my spine, that the metal work is trying to straighten."

When I was back in hospital, just lying there on bed-rest, I would just fantasise about 3ft peeling waves and lines stacked to horizon. Now that I’m back, I just cannot wait for the feeling of sliding down the wave face again, and cheering my friends into close-outs.

I’ve really developed an appreciation for the aesthetic beauty of longboarding now, as well as the practicality of longboarding, as it’s what I’m going to have to do be doing for a while when I’m back in the water.

The piece of my L1 vertebrae that was resting on the spinal column has obviously done some damage, as I do have some loss of function in my left leg, where the nerve just isn’t connecting up to the muscle. In all honesty, this is just a small nuisance compared to the prospect of spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair.

"Whilst I’m still stuck on dry land, I’ve got more into surf photography. It keeps me sane really, as I can still check the forecast, get all my gear sorted, and head down to the beach, so it feels like the closest thing I can do to surfing." © 2014 Joe Weghofer

Comments
Average rating of 5 from 13 votes

17388 Visits -

Video Dissolving Boundaries
259

Dissolving Boundaries

Josh Sleep and Luke Stickley in an edit by Harry Triglone which proclaims: Definitions belong to the definers... not the defined.

News Reef 'Shelter Supply' Giveaway
1997

Reef 'Shelter Supply' Giveaway

This is a chance to win two bags of gear from their new Shelter Supply range, just Insty your precious item.

Feature The Maldives out of Character
14272

The Maldives out of Character

The Maldives lights up at the end of June and into July for some unusually hollow waves

Video Jordy Smith and His Beloved Jeffrey’s Bay
9567

Jordy Smith and His Beloved Jeffrey’s Bay

From a surf stoked Durban kid to back-to-back Jeffrey’s Bay champion, O’Neill’s Jordy Smith has a special place in his heart for J-Bay.

Feature The Ripple Effect: The Brothers Witzig
3482

The Ripple Effect: The Brothers Witzig

Featuring two of Australia's wildest surfing icons – surf media pioneers the Witzig brothers, John and Paul.

Video Tub Thumping France, Pin It Heads to Hossegor in Ep 3
8751

Tub Thumping France, Pin It Heads to Hossegor in Ep 3

What would a surf roadtrip in Europe be without visiting the French coastline?