When Dr. Shane White, an endodontics professor in the UCLA School of Dentistry, was getting in some early-morning sets off Topanga Beach a few years ago, he was surprised when one of his dental students paddled up to him at 6 a.m. “Dr. White, I didn’t know professors could surf,” the student said.
Before White could respond, a grizzled local surfer passing by on his board remarked, “Son, you’re the reason he’s got to surf.”
Call it wave therapy or yoga-by-the-sea. White and others in the health sciences community have discovered the relaxing and restorative power of the sport. “Surfing is a simple, pure sport. It really clears your mind,” White said.
School of Dentistry Professor Shane White goes left on a big wave. Surfing helped him get through his treatment for colon cancer.
Others have found the same kind of serenity in riding the waves as well. Even on a cold and windy Monday afternoon last March, Dr. Eric Savitsky headed to a remote stretch of windy beach near Ventura County.
“I’ve been surf-starved,” said the UCLA emergency physician. “I haven’t been in the water in four days!” Despite winter-like conditions that made the erratic waves collide crazily onto themselves, Savitsky stayed in the chilly water for nearly two hours, finally emerging after everyone else had left.
“People surf for different reasons — some to relax, some for the adrenaline rush,” Savitsky said. “For me, surfing is the ultimate relaxation. It keeps me in the moment.”
Dr. James N. Weiss, chief of cardiology, is another avid wave rider. He’s been surfing since 1978 and tries to get in the water three times a week. “Surfing clears the mind, restores the ability to think. When I haven’t been surfing for a week, my wife says ‘Go surfing — you’re cranky!’”
Surfing has also helped forge a close camaraderie among three other physicians for whom the beach has become an informal clubhouse away from the hospital and work.
A head-and-neck surgeon, Dr. Keith E. Blackwell learned to surf 10 years ago with Dr. Joel Sercarz, a fellow head-and-neck surgeon. Four years later, a colleague, Dr. Vishad Nabili, picked up a board. They are now sufficiently confident in their abilities to take an annual surf trip together to Fiji.
“Surfing with each other is great,” Dr. Nabili said during a surfing trip to Manhattan Beach. “We’re not the best surfers. We don’t catch the most waves. But we like the camaraderie — even when we’re talking about work!”
From the left: UCLA physicians Vishad Nabili, Keith E. Blackwell and Joel Sercarz enjoy the cameraderie that surfing has helped foster. Photo by Stephanie Diani.
For White, the endodontist, surfing played a special role. As a child growing up in Ireland (yes, people surf there in very cold water), his uncle gave him a wooden board that was a family heirloom. “It’s 100 years old, but is almost useless for surfing on,” White said.
White left the Emerald Isle 22 years ago for Southern California and a specialty residency in prosthodontics. “I came out here for the residency thinking I was going to learn how to surf, but I was way too busy in the residency to learn it properly,” he said.
He finally learned it the hard way — by trial and error — until he got help from colleagues and one of his dental students. Dan Boehne, a world-class surfer, took White under his wing. Boehne even traveled with his professor to Tahiti for an invitational surf competition at Teahupo’o, a renowned surf spot and one of the most dangerous stops on the surfing world tour, according to White.
Today, White has tested his surfing skills all over the world, from South Africa to Hawaii. And while the act of surfing itself is more of a solitary activity, he said he appreciates the diverse crowd that is drawn to his sport.
“To be honest, surfing is a little bit selfish — it’s about you and the wave,” he said, “But it’s fun to meet people from all walks of life. The ocean is a great equalizer — it’s very democratic. I’m fortunate to surf with some wonderful friends and people sharing waves with the great and the good.”
His surf buddies came to his aid a few years ago when he was going through treatment for colon cancer. Jason Joe, a former student and now a colleague, and Han Scoble, a longtime dentist friend who put himself through college by shaping surfboards in Hawaii, helped White surf through the cancer.
“When I was going through a difficult time health-wise, my doctor friends and students picked me up and took me to the beach,” White recalled. “They carried me onto the board and pushed me into the water, and later they brought surf videos for me to watch at home.”
A portion of this story was adapted from a piece written by Kim Kowsky in UCLA Medicine Magazine.