“Part Two: Pipe Dreams – An interview with longtime Pipeline Contest Surf Doc, Leland Dao”

By Naja Enevold Olsen


Leland Dao tapping some Pacific Ocean perfection on the North Shore!

Q1: We’ve heard about Leland the doctor, tell us more about Leland the surfer? Do you venture out into big surf or take on Pipeline yourself?

A: Yes, I am an avid surfer myself, I surf almost every day. I have even been known to surf some relatively big waves (maybe 10-20 foot faces). Nowadays though, I tend to shy away from the main crowded breaks (I do try to surf Sunset and Pipeline each year), but I have my own uncrowded spots close to home which I go to mostly. It’s pretty challenging surfing big waves by yourself, which I do often, but after 20 years on the North Shore I know the conditions pretty well. Although, this doesn’t exempt me from getting sent back humbly to the beach by Mother Nature once in a while.

I also take my kids out to the many beautiful gentle breaks we have here in Hawaii. Adam is 9 and Sarah is 6, they both surf in the Menehune contest circuit here. Nowadays the kids start pretty young.

Q2: It’s well known that doctors make terrible patients! I can personally testify to this. I ended up with a huge sea ulcer from a non-healing (eh…poorly tended to) foot wound a few years back in Australia. I also developed otitis eterna, and later ruptured my tympanic membrane. Yet, do you think I stayed out of the water? Eventually, both infections deteriorated, and I had to relent. Antibiotics, analgesia, patched-up with waterproof dressings, repeatedly surfing…inevitably, I ended up a little worse-for-wear. Sometimes you have to stay ashore, rest up, and heel. Well, at least for a few days!

I imagine you’ve had your fair share of cuts and bruises, etc. Have you sustained any serious injuries from surfing? Do you practice what you preach and follow your own advice?

A: I think we as surfers will often push ourselves to the limit so we can be in the water as much as possible. I remember surfing on a medium-size North Shore day several years ago when my front foot slipped off my board during drop in, and I heard a POP. Next came the excruciating pain from a torn hamstring. I continued to surf a few more waves and hobbled to the beach. I sustained a huge contusion to the posterior thigh. As the swell was still up the next day, I duct taped the area and paddled back out, all for a few more waves. Not the advice I would have given to a patient, but I think you’re right, we are often bad patients!

Q3: You’ve been a contest doctor for numerous events, e.g. the Pipe Masters, for nearly two decades now. Witnessing the sport’s progression, in terms of athleticism, e.g. aerials are becoming almost commonplace and the envelope is continually being pushed in big wave settings, this must have heralded some novel injuries? What do you think we can expect to encounter, potential hazards, management issues, etc., as surfing continues to develop? And do you observe any change in the severity of injuries down through the years?

A: I think the number of lower extremity injuries has increased with the new moves, including  knee and ankle injuries. Also cuts and lacerations. Surfers who achieve this level of performance are highly skillful, and admittedly can often avoid injury, but this is not always the case. Many aerial maneuvers are often done during windy conditions, and sometimes this will blow the board out of position, placing the surfer in more precarious landing situations.

As far as other developments, such as the advances in the big wave arena, it’s truly amazing to see the paddle resurgence across the world, with committed athletes putting on spectacular performances. Surfers now fly all over the planet chasing storms, trying to raise the bar each time they go out into huge surf. It’s important to remember that they not only have the physical abilities to do so, but they also possess another essential component, that psychological preparedness and extreme desire to go out and pith themselves against massive waves. I recommend checking out “The Surfers’s Mind” by Richie Bennett for more on this. I find this mental aspect intriguing. However, I’m also glad to see more of these gladiators slowly but surely heeding safety calls and wearing flotation devices in giant surf.

The good, the bad, and the bizarre…I imagine you’ve seen it all! Surf-related injuries can be quite diverse. Which story/case has represented…

Q4: …the most serious situation and challenging in terms of management? And what was the outcome in this case?

Picture3_Leland_InterviewA: Fortunately my work has been under the relatively stable environment of professional surfing events. We have the contest directors looking at the surf conditions daily and deciding whether to run events or not. We also have the water patrol lifeguards as part of the team. I call them the ‘Guardian Angels’, they can rescue an injured victim out of treacherous surf and have them back on the beach in 60 seconds, theoretically. And of course the professional surfers themselves, being great athletes gives them a the better chance of escaping serious injury.

I think that all of these contributions have made our jobs much easier over the years.

The unfortunate incident of Tuhiti Haumani this last winter was a really serious and dangerous situation which occurred just after the completion of the Volcom Pipe Pro. I was not directly involved, as the event had just finished at about noon this day. That afternoon the surf and wind came up extremely fast and out of an unusual direction, creating particularly hazardous and atypical conditions at the Pipeline area. A number of surfers went out including Tuhiti, he reportedly was hit on the  head by his board and knocked unconscious. A number of the professional surfers and lifeguards rushed out to get to him in very difficult wind and rising surf conditions. They finally reached him, but he had been underwater for several minutes. The strong winds created havoc for the nine or so surfers trying to bring him ashore, it was becoming like a river flowing out to near the 3rd reef at Pipeline, a distance of probably ¼-½  mile or more. They lost his body at one point, but were able to recover him again. Finally, they got him to the beach, performed CPR, but no pulse was initially detectable. They did eventual get a pulse in the ambulance and transferred him to the hospital in critical condition. I had just returned to the event site to pick up a few more of things, only to hear what had just occurred from a number of the surfers who had been involved in the rescue, all were very distraught. After several weeks on life-support in the hospital ICU, I understand Tuhiti was repatriated to Tahiti with a tracheostomy tube.

Q5: …your most rewarding in terms of implementing a favourable outcome? And the most outrageous, just-plain-weird, case you’ve witnessed?

A: I feel that rehabilitating the surfers, helping them to overcome their injuries and continue to surf and compete is the best thing we do as Sports Med Physicians. The 2012 Pipe Masters, when Josh Kerr sustained a neck injury following a big over-the-falls wipeout, thankfully had a positive outcome.  We brought him to the medical area, evaluated him, and sent him for imaging  to clear C-spine injury. He returned to us afterwards and our team worked on him repeatedly with massage and manipulation. He was subsequently able to reenter the competition and continued winning heat after heat, even making it all the way to the finals against Joel Parkinson, the eventual Pipe Masters Winner and World  Champion. We are very proud of our part in helping Josh attain that result at one of the World’s most prestigious surfing events.

Q6: Do you have a few useful tips for surfers, in general, in order to stay safe in the waves?

A: Always study and keep an eye on the prevailing conditions, know what you’re getting yourself into. Make sure you understand the dynamics of the break, and know how to get back to shore in case something happens. Know before you go!

Q7: Lastly, for how many more years are we likely to see you providing your expertise at North Shore contests?

A: I have been lucky enough to be attending physician at every Pipe Masters and Pro event since 1997. Wow, time goes by so fast! I still enjoy every moment covering these and other Hawaiian surfing events. It’s a great privilege to be a part of professional surfing. People don’t always realize that there is long season of North Shore surfing events beginning around late October and going all the way through to March. It takes commitment to cover these events, but as mentioned, I really do enjoy working on them. I still love my job as a Family Physician on the North Shore as well. I want to mention that we have a team of health professionals who make up the Sports Med Team for WSL Hawaiian events, working as a group to catering for the needs of the competitors and the events. We have Doctors, Chiropractors, Therapist, Trainers, and other allied healthcare providers. We have students from all across the world who inquire each year about coming over to help us, and many actually do make the trip to be a part of our Sports Med team. Each year the group develops a great rapport, just about everyone walks away with fond memories of contributing to the safe and successful running of events like the Triple Crown.

So back to your question: I feel just as inspired now as I did 17 years ago, and I don’t have any intentions of retiring soon. I love this job, and hope to be around for another 17 or more! I welcome the EASD and its members to come experience the Hawaiian Winter Surf Contests firsthand, we will be happy to show you how we do it here in paradise!

It has been my pleasure, Mahalo and Aloha!

Naja Enevold OlsenRead Part I of “Pipe Dreams – An interview with Hawaiian Surf Doc, Dr.Leland Dao” here.

Naja Enevold Olsen MD is a surfer and doctor living in Aarhus, Denmark. She is Deputy Editor | Contributor Articles | EASD Marketing and Communications Team and has recently represented her country at the International Surfing Association (ISA) World Surfing Games 2015 in Nicaragua.

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