Avoiding perils on a shore vacation

Take precautions to ensure that a visit to the seaside is safe and happy

Beach Health

May 23, 2004|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Staff

On a typical summer weekend, Ocean City welcomes more than 350,000 visitors. They come for the sun and fun, and to escape reality. Nonetheless, accidents do happen, even on leisure time.

To avoid having a vacation go sour, prepare yourself for worst-case scenarios, which can run the gamut from heat exhaustion to close encounters with razor-sharp seashells.

"The rip current is the most dangerous thing we try to caution people against," says Tom Shuster, Ocean City's director of Recreation and Parks.

Although the city averages less than one drowning per summer (and it's usually medically related), those wicked waters keep the beach patrol hopping. More than 80 percent of lifeguards' water "interventions" involve someone caught in the clutches of a rip current.

What to do if you find yourself being sucked toward Europe? Just go with the flow, experts say. Swimmers get into trouble when they panic and fight the current, quickly exhausting themselves.

Instead, keep cool: Either ride the current into slightly deeper water until it dissipates or swim parallel to the shore and outflank the undertow.

Your friends ashore

You won't find Ocean City's medical facilities pictured on any postcards, but they're still impressive for a resort town.

"We tripled the size of our emergency room because of the summer crush," notes Leila McCann, community education coordinator at Atlantic General Hospital in Berlin, about eight miles from the beach.

Thanks to a construction project completed last August, the hospital now has an on-site "Fast Track" unit to handle minor mishaps, sort of the equivalent of the drive-in window at McDonald's.

Because emergency room visits surge almost 60 percent during the summer, Atlantic General also staffs a satellite clinic near the boardwalk on Philadelphia Avenue. Worcester County also operates a health center in downtown Ocean City that's geared toward young patients.

Butch Arbin, captain of Ocean City's beach patrol, is about to begin his 32nd summer of service. He advises all beach-goers, but particularly parents with youngsters in hand, to check in upon arrival with the nearest on-duty lifeguard, who nowadays is formally known as a "surf rescue technician."

The lifeguards will have the latest information about ocean currents, as well as general weather conditions. Also, each lifeguard stand serves as a point of visual reference that can help avoid another problem at the beach: lost children.

"We've literally had 4-year-old kids walk 10 miles into Delaware," says Arbin.

On the beach, parents should always maintain eye contact with children. But, just in case, children should be told in advance that it's OK to ask a lifeguard for assistance if they wander off or become disoriented.

Safety checklist

For adults, there are summertime precautions also worth taking:

* Never swim unsupervised: Lifeguards are on duty daily from Memorial Day weekend to Sept. 19, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Every year people venture into the ocean on their own, and every year a few get into trouble because of it.

* Expose children to water in a placid pool, not open ocean: Parents often wade in waist-high ocean water with toddlers on their hip or towing them on a rubber raft.

Bad idea, says Arbin.

If you encounter the wrong breaking wave, he explains, "it's like being hit by a car."

* Save your skin: Most ultraviolet-light damage that causes skin cancer is done before age 18.

Regardless, everybody should wear sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or higher, even on cloudy days.

Take care, too, when treading on hot sand: It's possible to get second-degree burns walking barefoot.

If blisters develop, wash and treat them with care, because feet are prone to infection.

* Dig a hole, not a grave: People become inexplicably doglike in the presence of sand. Digging is fine, excavating is dangerous. Sand can collapse inward without warning, entombing the unsuspected. Rule of thumb: Don't dig down deeper than knee-high to the smallest shoveler.

* Use your head and protect your neck: Never dive or body surf in shallow water. That should go without saying, but every summer there are about 80 serious head and neck injuries in Ocean City, officials say.

The bad ones can result in paralysis or death.

* Hydrate to excess: Leila McCann suggests swigging a cup of water every 15 or 20 minutes when you're outdoors in the summer to stave off heat stress.

* Make yourself a tasteless morsel: Laying off hair spray, perfume and cologne will make you less of an insect magnet.

There's nothing much to do about jellyfish other than stay out of their way. If you do get zapped, meat tenderizer, rubbing alcohol and ammonia are popular folk remedies, but soap and water may work just as well.

For more help

Some resources for staying safe at the beach:

* Members of the Ocean City beach patrol conduct 15-minute safety lectures every Sunday morning at their lifeguard stands, starting about 11 o'clock.

* A Monday-Thursday Junior Safety Patrol course for kids ages 10 to 17 is offered weekly beginning July 4th. Call the Ocean City Department of Recreation and Parks: 410-250-0125.

* Atlantic General Hospital has a walk-in medical center just off the boardwalk in Ocean City at 1001 Philadelphia Ave. Hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Daily, Memorial Day to Labor Day. Phone: 410-289-6241.

* Worcester County's H.O.T. Board (Health on the Boardwalk) youth health center is a block from the ocean (4 Caroline St.; 410-289-4044). Open Monday through Saturday, 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m., Memorial Day to Labor Day.

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