Rare beginner surfing injury leaves Seattle woman paralyzed

Addie Kilam


SEATTLE -- Addie Killam was on Spring Break 2008 in Maui with three college roommates when the girls decided to try surfing. A beginner but already athletic, Addie was quick to stand up on her surfboard.

 "I kind of felt a pop in my lower back," she described.  "It didn't hurt, it wasn't real severe, but it was noticeable."

Addie stayed in the water for another 10 minutes.  She never wiped out, but with some numbness coming and going in her leg, she returned to the beach to rest. She had trouble walking but attributed it to sea legs.

"We think 30-45 minutes later, when my friends were done, I couldn't get up," she said.

Her friends managed to get her to the hospital, and she wound up in the ICU for the next week and a half. The diagnosis? Surfers Myelopathy - a rare, non-traumatic injury that left her a paraplegic, paralyzed from the waist down.

Surfers Myelopathy can happen when a novice surfer spends an extended amount of time lying on board, looking back at the oncoming waves.  When moving to stand, it's possible to hyperextend the back in a way that pinches the blood vessels running along the spinal cord.  That cuts off the blood flow and oxygen to the spine.

In Addie's case, she had just gone into the water.  And unlike most patients, she had surfed before.

"I don't know. There is no reason why and they did tons of blood work and they really didn't come up with anything.  I think it's just one strike of bad luck," she said.

Addie took her bad luck and kept working towards the life she'd always envisioned.  She has two degrees and works for the FAA. She was an accomplished athlete before the accident - and after - with multiple triathlons, road races and fun runs behind her.

As Addie approaches the seven year anniversary of her injury, she wants others to learn about Surfers Myelopathy. According to the Surfers Myelopathy Foundation, beginning surfers should sit on the board while waiting for waves.  Limit time in the water to about half an hour.  With any back pain, get out of the water immediately, and get medical help.

"They believe time is of the essence," Addie said.  "The sooner you get treated and get the swelling to go down, the better off you'll be in the long run. Some people do recover almost completely."

Addie still holds hope of walking again one day, though as time passes, she knows it's less likely.  It hasn't stopped her from living life to the fullest, and it won't keep her from one day taking a dream vacation back to Hawaii.

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