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10 Questions: Monty Downs

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Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2013 12:30 am

1 First, tell our readers a little bit about your background. Where are you originally from? How long have you lived on Kaua‘i?

Monty Downs: I was born in the Adirondacks in upstate New York and was raised on an island named Trinidad —The Land of Calypso — in the Caribbean. My father was a virologist and Trinidad's forests are steaming-hot, Amazonian and full of life, including viruses, some 20 of which were new to science when he and his team “discovered” them. My family moved back to the U.S. when I was 17 and I went to college and medical school at Yale, did my internship training in San Francisco and started my practice on Kaua‘i in 1972 at age 26. Back then there were no such things as ER doctors and my first few years here I was a family practitioner. When the specialty of ER medicine developed in the early 1970s, I was attracted to it and became an ER doctor at Wilcox Hospital in 1977. This has been my career ever since.

2 How long have you been with the Kaua‘i Lifeguard Association? What made you get involved?

MD: Distressed by the number of drownings that I witnessed in the ER, I joined an organization called the Kaua‘i Water Safety Task Force in 1991. That committee, presided over by long-time ocean safety advocate Pat Durkin, has no budget and is kind of a think-tank. It has maintained its credibility over the years and has been a strong lobbying force for ocean safety improvements. The Kaua‘i Lifeguard Association (KLA) was founded in 2006 by Kalani Vierra and Tom Canute in order to add some fundraising and budget capability for ocean safety programs. I joined the KLA in 2009 and was elected president in 2010. I certainly won’t claim that our “ocean safety challenge” is Kaua‘i's biggest problem or challenge, but it can and does cause dreadful havoc for too many families and certainly merits a place on the list of challenges that need attention.

3 As a physician at Wilcox Memorial Hospital’s emergency room, approximately how many ocean-related mishaps do you see/handle per month? What are the most common injuries?

MD: I would estimate that we see 60 to 100 people each month in our ER for ocean-related mishaps. The vast majority of these are “minor,” such as cuts from rocks or skegs, punctures from sea urchin spines or Portuguese Man O' War stings. The “major” category — 1 to 3 per month — include (A) people who nearly drown and get water in their lungs and who need a day or two in the hospital;  (B) people who are rendered quadriplegic, usually from face planting while body surfing (too often at Brennecke's); and (C) people who drown. (B) and (C) are, of course, beyond “major.” They are catastrophic, with not only lives but also entire families shattered.

4       What are some of the biggest threats to ocean safety on Kaua‘i?

MD: The biggest threat is rip currents. Nationally and locally, 85 percent of beach drownings are because of these currents, which can be dramatic during certain conditions and can whisk you several hundred yards out to sea in no time at all. Very often they are much more subtle and they may just pull you out 20 or 30 yards off shore. Either way, the key to surviving them is to not try and fight your way back in against them, and I'll go into more detail about this in my answer to question 10. Another major threat is unseen rocks or sandbars when you’re body surfing, or when you go running full speed to plunge into the water. Sharks? Very rare. One significant incident approximately every two or three years — but big drama for sure, and certainly “major” for the affected person.

5 What changes have occurred over the last several years to improve ocean safety?

 MD: The biggest change has been the improved size and technology and professionalism in our County Ocean Safety Division. There are many elected officials and departmental chiefs who are responsible for this, none more so than Fire Chief Robert Westerman (and his predecessors) and Supervisor Kalani Vierra. This improvement has given serious teeth to our first KLA mantra: Please swim near a lifeguard. It so happens that this improvement has also been responsible for any number of incredible rescues at our remote and unguarded beaches, but I don't like to advertise this too much and I repeat: Please swim near a lifeguard.

Another huge change (advance) has been our partnership with Winston Welborn of kauaiexplorer.com. He has carried our safety information into the world of websites, social media and computer graphics. KLA is putting finishing touches on its own website, kauailifeguards.org, which will also provide safety information and assist with fundraising for our programs and projects.

6 How would you say Kaua‘i compares to the other Hawaiian islands in terms of ocean safety and resources?

MD: Kaua‘i compares extremely favorably with other Hawai‘i counties in regards to county dollars spent per person. O‘ahu has obviously been the leader in terms of total county money budgeted, and also in terms of leading the way to technology upgrades — i.e. Jet Skis with their rescue sleds — and to systems that have greatly upgraded the lifeguarding profession. Kaua‘i also compares favorably with our other Hawaiian islands in terms of an organized lay effort and commitment to improve ocean safety. I need to comment that all the islands are blessed with surfers and other beachgoers who perform countless rescues annually — both high-drama rescues and also a simple helping hand or an aloha word of caution.

7 As president of KLA, what goals have you set for 2013?

MD: Our KLA goals and projects for 2013 are: (A) Monitor and maintain our rescue tube (flotation device) stations. We have over 200 on our beaches and they experience wear and tear and (very rarely, I'm pleased to report) vandalism. Since this program started in 2008 we have documentation of 57 people who were greatly assisted, if not saved, because of the presence of these stations, along with people who are familiar with how to use the devices. (B) Collaborate with some other agencies and sponsors to set up a video on four 55-inch TV screens at our airport baggage claim areas, with the video offering ocean safety information. (C) Continue putting up Beach Safety Displays, which are beach specific and show the currents and dangers at individual beaches, along with generic safety advice. Our first one is in place at Wai‘ohai Beach. Check it out. These will be quite an upgrade in ocean safety and our goal is to get 30 or so in place around Kaua‘i. And, (D) continue lobbying to find a way to increase our lifeguards' pay, thereby reflecting and rewarding the huge advance in job description and professionalism that they have taken on in the last 20 years. Our projects don’t happen without our being blessed by our kind-hearted donors and sponsors and partners. I very much regret that I cannot list each and every one of them/you. I do have to mention my wife Elaine, the stabilizing home-base in my life as I buzz around Kaua‘i carrying out my work and our KLA programs.

8 What is one thing most people don’t know about ocean safety that they should?

MD: The one thing that people should know about Kaua‘i’s oceans and beaches is that a wonderful vacation and a beautiful day at the beach can quickly turn into a catastrophic family disaster — if you don't take the necessary moments to get information about our conditions and our safety recommendations. For KLA, providing this information without “fear mongering” and scaring off the lifeblood (visitors) of our tourism-based economy is a major challenge and it requires treading a delicate balance. KLA is fortunate to work with a team of experts and partners who are committed to finding and achieving this balance. Our partners include large agencies such as the Hawai‘i Lodging and Tourist Association, Kaua‘i Visitors Bureau, and — on a smaller one-on-one scale -— our concierges, our valets, our department store and supermarket cashiers, our tour boat captains and crew, our surfers and beachgoers, and our everyday citizens like you and me.

9 How do I know when to stay out of the water?

MD: Well, if I had a list of 10 things to do when you go to our beaches, numbers 1 through 6 would be our 1st KLA mantra: Please swim near a lifeguard. Our lifeguards are there not only to rescue you, if necessary, but also to answer this very question. As far as 7 through 10 on my list, and this assumes you have made the choice to swim at an unguarded beach, which — like it or not — quite a few people do, even before you head to the beach check out the daily conditions report on www.kauaiexplorer.com; Observe the conditions for at least 20 minutes before venturing in; Ask a local beachgoer about the dangers and rip current locations at that beach, and give him/her the opportunity to share Kaua‘i’s Aloha Spirit with you; Swim with a buddy and keep another observer/buddy on shore; Wear fins; Familiarize yourself with the location of the nearest rescue tube station and with how to use one, if necessary; And, observe our second KLA mantra: When in doubt, don't go out.

10 If I find myself being sucked out to sea, what should I do?

MD: First, assuming you know how to swim, try not to panic! I bet many of us can hold our breath for 1 to 2 minutes in a swimming pool or on our couch at home. But throw panic into the equation and this goes down to 3 to 5 seconds. Then suddenly you're sucking water into your lungs, you're rapidly getting more panicked and exhausted, you're severely straining your heart and things go downhill amazingly quickly — even with a person who has no prior heart disease. This “don’t panic” message sounds simple but it is the single most important thing you can do when you find yourself sucked out to sea. It involves mental and physical “yoga” of the highest order. Now, once you're calm, it’s a matter of calmly waving for help, waiting for help (here's where someone with a rescue tube can come in handy), treading water in a “drown-proof” manner and possibly trying to work yourself back shoreward if the current has released you.

I close this enjoyable and very appreciated question-and-answer piece with our third KLA mantra: Have fun and be safe. Aloha.

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