Young doctor drowns while surfing

The unconscious surfer was loaded aboard the helicopter along with paramedics from PacWest Ambulance who continued efforts to resuscitate him during the short flight to the Newport hospital. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

OTTER ROCK — A 30-year-old physician from Corvallis died Saturday in a tragic surfing accident after he paddled single-handedly into a storm-swept ocean.

Toren Stearns was pronounced dead at Samaritan Pacific Communities Hospital after rescuers found his body floating 200 feet offshore from a popular surfing beach on the south side of Cape Foulweather, near the Devil’s Punchbowl.

Senior Chief Chris Hinote of U.S. Coast Guard Station Depoe Bay dispatched a 47-foot motor lifeboat and led a ground party to the scene after an eyewitness called 911 to report a surfer in distress at 3:30 p.m. He also called for a Newport-based rescue helicopter.

“He was floating in the second generation of breakers,” recalled Hinote, saying that an unidentified surfer was the first to reach the unconscious victim and struggled to hold him as the MH-65 chopper lowered a rescue swimmer. “The swimmer tried to hoist him, but it was too rough. After two attempts, he and the Good Samaritan put the body on the board and brought him in.”

Stearns was loaded on the helicopter along with PacWest Ambulance paramedics who continued efforts to resuscitate him during the short flight to the Newport hospital.

Because Stearns was alone, however, first responders and surfing experts say all the details of the case may never be known. They wonder why, for example, Stearns became separated from his surfboard.

“That’s the last thing you want to do is get separated from your flotation,” said big-wave surfer John Forse, who bears the scars of a 1998 shark attack off Gleneden Beach. “But you have to ask, what was he doing out there in the first place?”

The U.S. Coast Guard recorded swells at 12 feet with 13-second intervals on Saturday, conditions that barred surfboard rentals at nearby Ossie’s Surf Shop.

“We don’t rent when the swells are over 10 feet,” said shopkeeper Brian Sudlow, who noted that a powerful riptide was also in evidence that day. “If it’s anything over eight feet you should be a pretty experienced surfer. It was just messy that day, with bad winds.”

Stearns, a highly-regarded psychiatrist in his fourth year of residency at Samaritan Health Services in Corvallis, was from Lodi, Calif., where he was the valedictorian of his graduating class at Tokay High School in 2006. He enrolled at the University of California where he studied neuroscience as an undergraduate before attending the medical school at the University of Michigan.

“He was a critical member of our psychiatric team,” commented Dr. Sugat Patel, director of medical education at the Samaritan hospital in Corvallis. “His loss is not only felt here but in the psychiatric community at large.”

There was some evidence that Stearns was a novice surfer. On Monday, Depoe Bay surfer Stanley Zitnick was at Otter Rock while friends of Stearn held a memorial service. Some mourners wearing hospital badges prayed from the rocky headland overlooking the accident scene while two of Stearn’s surfing buddies paddled out.

“The guys that went into the water knew him,” recalled Zitnick, who was driven back by the “gnarly” waves when he tried to surf Otter Rock on Dec. 1, the day Stearns died. “They told him not to go out. He was a beginner, but they said it was some kind of ‘courage’ test, where he was facing his fears and building his confidence.”

By his own account, it was advice Stearns should have followed. In a heartfelt interview with his hometown paper in 2011, he talked about the value of wise counsel.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for advice,” he commented. “Listen to your parents’ advice, your friends’ advice. Once you graduate and life in the real world knocks you down, it is a whole lot harder to stand back up than it is if you had known beforehand what was coming up ahead.”

Stearns took his dog surfing on the fateful day. The dog, a male Shiba Imu, was found on the beach by a sheriff’s deputy and taken to the Lincoln County Animal Shelter, which released the pet to the victim’s family the next day.

Surfing deaths are rare — only about 10 people die surfing annually among an estimated 23 million surfers worldwide. Authorities concur, however, that the young doctor was likely in over his head as he challenged conditions that drove other surfers ashore.

“This is number seven in 18 months,” remarked Hinote of the mounting tally of victims claimed by the ocean in his small operating area. “It was just another unfortunate incident that definitely could have been prevented. You’ve got to know your limitations.”

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