Moving people with his words

Potomac’s Basile an advocate for beach safety

Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2006

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Submitted photo
Potomac resident Josh Basile (right), 20, visits Dewey Beach for the first time since he broke his spine after being slammed into the sand by a wave two years ago. On Saturday, Basile spoke with two Silver Spring Boy Scout troops about practicing beach safety.

When Josh Basile hit the beach on an August afternoon two years ago, life was ‘‘great.”

The Potomac resident had just finished an internship and was vacationing with his family at Dewey Beach.

But life changed drastically when a wave crashed on the unsuspecting teen, slamming his head into the sand and breaking his fifth vertebra, paralyzing him.

Last week, Basile returned to the beach to warn people about the dangers of the ocean.

‘‘People think of sand as soft,” said Basile, who is now 20. ‘‘But when it’s wet, it’s as hard as concrete.”

It was this ‘‘concrete” that paralyzed Basile’s body from the shoulders down.

The once-muscular college athlete of 185 pounds in three weeks was reduced to a 135-pound quadriplegic, bound to a wheelchair.

Initially, the physical paralysis led to a mental paralysis, Basile said.

‘‘I really wasn’t able to do anything....,” he said. ‘‘Life wasn’t looking so promising.”

But the immobility didn’t last for long.

Nine months after his injury, Basile was invited to speak about his experience at his alma mater, the Bullis School in Potomac.

‘‘It was my first time ever giving a speech in my life and it ended up being in front of 750 students,” he said.

Basile talked about his life, his injury and about having a safe summer. He received a standing ovation and bundles of letters from students after the speech.

‘‘They called me their superhero,” Basile said. In the letters were ‘‘the nicest words I ever heard.”

The experience led to a life-changing revelation for Basile: ‘‘Even in a wheelchair, I could make a difference.”

Basile started a foundation, Determined2Heal, to help people newly injured with spinal cord injuries to transition into their changed lives. He began advocating for improved beach safety and stem cell research, giving speeches across the nation and drawing media coverage.

The man who could not move his fingers began moving audiences with what he calls his ‘‘best asset” — his voice.

On Saturday, Basile shared his story with Boy Scouts from Silver Spring Troops 495 and 1083 at their fifth annual beach safety weekend program.

Basile was invited by Silver Spring resident Susan Johnson, who lost her son — an Eagle Scout of Troop 495 — when he was trapped in a rip current at Rehoboth Beach in 1998.

‘‘We’re not trying to be alarmist,” Johnson said. ‘‘But we just want people to be aware that they can have great fun at the beach, but the power of the ocean is tremendous.”

At the headquarters of the Dewey Beach Patrol in Delaware, Basile talked about ocean water safety to the scouts.

Last year, hospitals reported about 243 head, neck and spinal cord injuries resulting from beach accidents on the Delaware shoreline, Basile said.

His own experience was ‘‘definitely not a freak accident,” Basile said. ‘‘It was happening daily, weekly.”

Yet the beach-going public remains largely unaware of the dangers they face, he said.

When beaches are replenished, they do not form the gradually inclining underwater slopes that people might imagine. Instead, Basile said, the sand forms a steep incline like a wall that causes waves to break on the sand — and on any person who might be standing in the way.

‘‘People are just at the mercy of beach waves,” he said.

Beach towns are not doing enough to address safety issues, because ‘‘they’re not being put in a position where they have to,” Basile said.

‘‘If there was a shark attack at one of these beaches, the beaches would be closed,” he said. ‘‘But hundreds and hundreds of people are having these neck injuries that are changing their lives forever. Because it’s not a shark attack, it’s not drawing enough publicity to have them make the changes.”

Beaches need better systems of communication for lifeguards to alert the public about the ocean conditions, Basile said.

A universal flag system would clearly communicate whether it is safe to swim in the ocean, he said. Lifeguards could raise green flags for safe conditions, yellow flags for cautioning swimmers and red flags for dangerous conditions — an idea Basile plans to take to beaches that sometimes have no warning system.

‘‘Lifeguards can monitor the whole coastline, but with these flags up, they can communicate with people right when they go on the beach,” Basile said.

Basile also hopes to see more beaches making efforts like the United Open Water Rescue program of Dewey Beach that dispatched a state police helicopter to his own rescue.

It was the death of Johnson’s son that spurred the program that trains members of the Delaware state police, beach lifeguards, paramedics and the U.S. Coast Guard to coordinate rescues, said the program’s founder and lifeguard of 37 years, Peter Hartsock.

But public education is also key, said Hartsock, who is also a captain in the U.S. Public Health Service and works at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

‘‘If you were only to drive a car two weeks out of a year, how many accidents would you see?” he said. ‘‘You wouldn’t see very many. But when you’re driving all the time, you see accidents all the time.”

The same goes for the beach, Hartsock said. ‘‘People simply don’t know.”

Basile has made it a personal crusade to educate people.

Life is still ‘‘great,” he said, ‘‘just different.”

‘‘Before, I used to define success by girls, money, sports, objects,” Basile said. ‘‘Now, I have to define success by the impact I can make on this world.”