"I can't feel anything."
When Duke rower Patricia Kolman heard an injured man cry those four panicked words one Friday afternoon on a beach in Long Beach Island, N.J., she didn't panic. Kolman, now a sophomore member of Duke's rowing team, is a trained ocean rescue specialist who for the past four summers has patrolled a two-mile stretch of beach in Beach Haven, N.J., that draws upwards of 300 people daily during the summer. She has patrolled that same beach since she was 16 years old and originally joined the ocean rescue program because the physical demands of the job and required exercise regimen allowed her to stay in shape for rowing.
Luckily for the injured man that day, Kolman was on duty and saved the man from suffering complete paralysis, or worse, after a powerful wave slammed him onto the sand. During her routine patrol of the shoreline, Kolman saw the man crash backwards into the sand. The man landed on his back and stayed there, motionless. Kolman was in the right place at the right time but had also endured enough training that she knew exactly how to handle the situation.
"I just see this man fly backwards, and I look over and he's just lying on his back. It's hard to gauge sometimes because people will do that for fun - they'll lay in the sand, and they love the water hitting them. I run over to him, ask him if he's ok, and he's just laying there and says, 'I can't feel anything.'"
Kolman's first step was to radio the lifeguard station and alert them of a spinal emergency. After giving them her location, Kolman - who has conditioned herself to row for hours on end, but not to drag a fully grown man through the sand unassisted - placed the man's arms above his head in a "streamline" position to support his own injured neck and started hauling him away from the surf.
"All those crazy theories and examples of people having crazy adrenaline strength when they need it, it's all true," Kolman said. "I didn't feel anything until I stopped moving him out."
What she did feel when she finally got the man into a safe location was a bolt of pain shoot through her entire back. But the man, at this point unable to move any of his limbs, began screaming, which blotted out the incidental pain that Kolman was feeling. Her only purpose from there was to cradle the man's head in a neutral position until help arrived to apply a neck brace and place him on a back board.
After a medical emergency team arrived and secured the man, an ambulance arrived and transported him to a helicopter which then airlifted him to a nearby trauma center. Days later, Kolman and her fellow lifeguards received an email from the hospital thanking them for their handling of the situation and updating them on the man's status.
"It was a really uplifting email, and they were really grateful and thankful to us. They said he was paralyzed from the waist down - he was paralyzed on the beach - but he has a chance of making a substantial, if not full recovery," Kolman said. "I have a copy of the email hanging over my bed for when I'm freaking out about chemistry or just anything that happens to me. Any time I need to be put in my place, my mom just tells me to think about that. It just really put things in perspective."
While Kolman was simply doing her job as a lifeguard, the episode has made her take a broader look at her duties as an ocean rescue specialist and her long-term career aspirations.
"Half of it was yeah, it's our job to do this, but it just put the job into perspective too," she said. "This guy, he's a dad, and he could have that happen. That, in combination with what happened to [Duke football player] Blair Holliday, everything can change so quickly."
After she graduates, Kolman plans to embark on a career in college athletics, although she is not certain in what capacity. An expected history major, Kolman knows that she wants to help people in some way.
"After all that, I decided that I really love helping people and love doing my job well. Our patrol does an exchange with a beach patrol in Australia, so I'm thinking after I graduate, just for one winter it'd be really cool if I went over to Australia and became a lifeguard there. That's what I'm working toward next."