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‘A happy ending’: La Jolla woman thanks those who rescued her after surfing injury

Margie Lord of La Jolla holds a check for $4,700 for the San Diego Fire Rescue Foundation.
Margie Lord of La Jolla holds a check for $4,700 for the San Diego Fire Rescue Foundation as she is joined by foundation Executive Director Wendy Robinson and members of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, many of whom helped Lord after she was seriously injured in a surfing accident.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Bearing cookies and smiles, Margie Lord walked into San Diego Fire Station 9 on Ardath Lane in La Jolla on March 23 to thank the lifeguards and paramedics who she says are the reason she can walk at all.

Lord also presented a check for $4,700 to the San Diego Fire Rescue Foundation — money raised by her friends to be split among the stations responsible for her rescue after a surfing accident off La Jolla.

About a dozen employees of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department gathered to hear Lord’s account of her recovery and respond to her questions about her accident and rescue — a day she doesn’t remember much about.

Margie Lord laughs with lifeguards who rescued her after she suffered broken vertebrae in a La Jolla surfing accident.
Margie Lord laughs with lifeguards who rescued her after she suffered several broken vertebrae in a La Jolla surfing accident in January.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

On Jan. 10, Lord, a longtime La Jolla resident and Realtor who has been surfing for 20 years, rode the “last wave in” of her usual surfing session just north of Scripps Pier at La Jolla Shores.

It was low tide, and Lord said the shallow water “pushed me over the front of the nose of the board and I hit head first in about two feet of water.”

“I knew immediately something very serious had happened,” Lord said; she wasn’t able to walk or drag herself out of the water.

She waved to another surfer for help, and that person called another to help him get Lord out of the water and help her lie down.

“I was in an extreme amount of pain,” Lord said.

One of the surfers alerted Ashleigh Palinkas, diving program technician at Scripps Dive Locker, to call 911. Lifeguards from a tower further south at The Shores arrived in their truck to immobilize Lord and transfer her to a waiting ambulance.

“We knew it was serious right away,” lifeguard Sgt. John Maher said.

Paramedics took Lord to Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, where she received MRI and CT scans and soon went into surgery.

“She broke numerous vertebrae,” said her husband, Tom Lord.

The surgeon opened Margie’s trapezius muscle to fuse together five vertebrae in her neck and back with eight screws.

Margie Lord bears a scar from having five vertebrae fused together after her Jan. 10 surfing accident.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

She was in the hospital just under a week and is waiting to start physical therapy so she can resume upper-body exercises and driving.

“I can’t really move my neck,” Margie said, and she still has some minor paralysis in her right hand.

She hasn’t been back on a surfboard yet, though she said that’s coming: “I want to get back in the water, obviously.”

In late January, she received a large floral bouquet from about 20 friends dating to her elementary school years who had learned about her accident on social media.

Along with the flowers, Margie learned her friends had raised $4,700 for the local lifeguards and Fire Station 9.

In coordinating the donation with San Diego Fire Rescue Foundation Executive Director Wendy Robinson, Margie asked for help in arranging a time to thank those who helped her.

“I wanted to meet you guys,” Margie told the group. “I know a lot of times when you guys take calls, you don’t know what happens, and in my case, it was a happy ending. … I’m just really grateful for all of you for what you did.”

Margie also has been in contact with Palinkas to give thanks. She said she still hasn’t found the two surfers — one of whom she said is named Ben — who pulled her from the water. “I’d love to thank them,” she said.

Margie and her husband credit her rescuers with her ability to walk today.

“The neurosurgeon called me after the operation [and] said she was one millimeter away from total paralysis,” Tom told the lifeguards. “It’s amazing, the job you did.”

Battalion Chief Erik Windsor of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department said “it’s not an accident” that Margie was spared more serious injury. The department, which comprises fire and lifeguard services, “is by far one of the best in the United States,” he said.

“We’re trained, we’re prepared,” Windsor said. “Planning and perfecting [are] what we do.”

He added that the department is constantly updating its spinal immobilization protocols and that other rescue departments nationwide often ask San Diego for advice on training.

Maher said accidents like Margie’s are common and that such rescues “become second nature,” especially since one member of his team, Michael Kennedy, is a registered nurse.

What is rare, however, is being thanked by an accident victim afterward, Windsor said. “We don’t often get to see people after we send them off to the hospital, and a lot of times we wonder and worry [about them]. … We live a life of no closure.”

Margie coming in to say thank you “means a lot to me,” Windsor said. ◆