Wipeout at the Wedge: Bodysurfer walks again after breaking spine

Zeiger Photo courtesy of Duncan Shelby

Zeiger bodysurfs a wave at the Wedge. A similar wave put Zeiger in the hospital Aug. 19. Photo courtesy of Duncan Shelby

On Aug. 19, 23-year-old bodysurfer Zachariah Zeiger chose a wetsuit over his usual Speedo for no particular reason. Little did he know that this choice would save his life.

“I heard a bunch of cracks in my back which is normal for me … but what was abnormal for me is I couldn’t move afterward. It was almost like I needed to throw up blood,” Zeiger said.

Zachariah Zeiger broke his T-12 vertebrae at the Wedge. Photo by Olivia Harden

Zachariah Zeiger broke his T-12 vertebrae at the Wedge. Photo by Olivia Harden

Zeiger, a psychology major in his fifth year, broke his T-12 vertebrae in half and hemorrhaged all of the muscles around his spine while riding a wave at the Wedge, a popular surfing spot in Orange County.

“Surfing (at the) Wedge is one of the most humbling experiences one can endure. The wave is mutant,” said Justin Jones, a senior double major in accounting and finance and body surfer.

Zeiger said it is difficult to remember some details once the wave turned sour because his body began to go into shock.

He was pulled out of the water by nearby bodysurfers and lifeguards and was immediately placed on a gurney and taken to Hoag Hospital Newport Beach. Zeiger was in the hospital for less than a week before he began walking again and was home only a few days later.

“I was not supposed to walk anymore and I walked out of the hospital six days later,” Zeiger said. “I want people to know that this story is not about me. This story is about Jesus as he heals me.”

Zeiger has met people with similar stories from surfing at the Wedge who are still paralyzed or are going through rehab and understands how incredible it is that he is still alive.

Zeiger will not be returning to Chapman until spring 2017, but said that the university has been very supportive during this difficult time.

Waves at the Wedge can

Waves at the Wedge can swell up to 30 feet. Photo courtesy of Cameron Shaffer

“It’s not as uncommon as you think. This is the third one this semester so far,” Jerry Price, vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of students, said about students taking time off due to injuries or accidents.

Price explained that there are two main steps the university takes to help students like Zeiger through these situations. The university coaches students on the process for withdrawing, but many students want to come back later in the semester. Students are then advised on the best route to take for contacting professors since Chapman policy requires the discretion of the professor, not the university.

“All Chapman students receive a full refund (on tuition) up to one week after classes have started,” Price said.

Even after this incident, Zeiger plans to return to the Wedge, if not to surf, to cheer on his buddies.

His friend, Garrett Aanestad, a ‘16 strategic and corporate communications alumnus, is rooting for him.

“God definitely has special plans for him (Zeiger) and had him here still with us for a purpose. He’s definitely a reminder that Mother Nature is in control,” Aanestad said.

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The Wedge is named for its large wedge-like waves. Photo courtesy of Philip Kitamura

 

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