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By Clay Wright

All photos by Tara Etter

What a winter!
If you ever wanted to become a pill-poppin couch potato who complains like an old lady when it rains? Let me suggest twisting your knee and getting a wicked ear infection right before Green Race. . . getting to limp around on crutches whacked on oxycodone and in near silence at the event, then finding out you need knee AND ear surgery before you will be able to paddle again. My only consolation: I think the Rain Gods miss me, as there’s barely been an inch since.

Knee ACL replacement breezes by, but after months and months of ENT/Specialist visits, rounds of antibiotics, oceans of drops, and weeks spent in Lortab-land my Ear has me on the Vacation to Hell. I can’t hear but 50%, the pain is occasionally intense, I’ve got goo coming out some weeks, and I can’t hear even straight hydrogen peroxide drops till they ooze down, burning and bubbling into my brain. My latest doctor finally admits ’till you get those bones removed there is just not much we can do’.

I’ve paddled since I was 7, full time winters here at Rock Island for 15 years, and didn’t start wearing ear plugs till my first OR – about 12 years ago, when ‘Dr. D’ awarded me ‘Best of Show’ in terms of ear closure and told me I had 95% closure in one ear and 80% in the other. So getting 12 more years on 250 day/yr paddling program is testament to the effectiveness of Dr. D’s Pro-plugs and Playboater’s ‘Ear-wig’ Scull Cap (System X). Without Doc’s free OR screening, though, I had not a single symptom and would never have known. Got my first real ear infection after an Africa trip in 2003, and only 6-7 more minor ones till now. Draining water became a real problem in 2003, but otherwise I felt I had at least 90% hearing in both ears despite what Doc’s photos showed.

But 2006 is a different story. The infection moved to my middle ear, bursting my ear drum in a flood of warm goo on the heating pad and with a welcome relief from the pain the day before Green Race. It re-heals then burst again later in the winter. Little did I know I would rather have continued with the pain. The infection is the real danger, the boney growths are just the cause.

Surgical research: My ENT had done 3 of the surgeries in which they peel your ear off and drill . .but when the CT scan came in he balked from the job. ‘You don’t have one bone blocking the ear canal, it’s like the whole thing has grown shut’ … and he points out the thickening bones in my ear canal … they are the thickest bones in my whole scull according to the scan. He worries drilling with no ear drum visible means possibly missing the canal (going into the brain). He worries a Chisel strike could cause a fracture running through the facial nerve (causing permanent facial paralysis). I’m freaked out, and start Googling to find old Shaun Baker articles, Bob Gedekoh’s AW writings, lots of horror stories, but find one website dedicated to my condition:
and accompanying article.

I e-mail the website and Dr. Hetzler writes back the next day with tons of info. When I ask him about number of surgeries performed, facial nerve paralysis and time off the water after he’s got all the right answers: 350 ears, no facial nerve or scull fractures, and 2-weeks to 1 month usual healing time (as opposed to 2 months after the drill). Then I ask about coming out for the surgery and he’s already got files made up with airport distances, hotels, drive times, and what to expect. Only someone fully dedicated to treating this condition and used to on out-of town athletes would go to so much trouble. And Southwest flies Nashville to San Jose for under 200$ round trip. I’m so outta here …

Stay tuned for Episode #2 in the continuing drama ‘Surfer’s Ear Sucks"


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Whatdaysay? My winter in a nutshell.

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Ever try keeping your ears dry at Rock Island? (It doesnt work). Here is my cotton-ball, vaseline, swim-cap, scull-cap, and FNA full-face combo about to fail.

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15 years of cold-water Freestyle: CT / lifetime achievement award

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Off to the Left Coast . . .