Sports Medicine Team Witnesses Diana Nyad’s Determination
In the four years he’s been practicing sports medicine, Clifton Page, M.D., has treated all manner of injuries, from garden-variety bruises to dislocated shoulders, concussions and collapsed lungs. As one of the UHealth Sports Medicine physicians who care for UM team athletes, he’s usually ready for any emergency and to assuage the emotional toll significant injury can bring.
Still, when representatives for legendary endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, now 62, asked that a Miami physician join her team as she tried again to swim from Cuba to Florida, Page knew he was in for something special when UHealth Sports Medicine Chief Lee Kaplan, M.D., recommended him.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into, no idea what I was going to encounter,” Page said, “but it sounded like an awesome opportunity.”
In the end, Page and Miller School colleague Michael Letter, PA, played a crucial role in the expedition that captivated fans across the world as CNN and other media chronicled Nyad’s ill-fated journey.
Because the pair joined the team late, they met up with Nyad nearly 12 hours after she departed from Cuba, when she was in deep waters off the island. By then, she already had suffered her first encounter with a jellyfish, which Page and Letter attended to as soon as they arrived on the support vessel.
“We gave her oxygen and treated her with steroid shots, Benadryl and epinephrine,’’ Page said. “Things started to turn around and she wanted to continue. It was incredibly inspiring to watch someone put aside such pain to continue a quest.”
But as Nyad’s global admirers now know, the sea and its creatures would deny the world’s former No. 1 marathon swimmer another record. After 41 hours of suffering more stings, intense pain and partial paralysis from jellyfish poison, Nyad couldn’t ignore the advice from Page and others who warned her life was in danger and another sting could be catastrophic.
She reluctantly aborted her long-held dream – and third attempt – to become the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a protective cage. Her initial try in 1978 was cut short by strong currents and bad weather after almost 42 hours in the water. Her second attempt last August ended after nearly 29 hours and 60 miles, when she was plagued by a shoulder injury and an 11-hour asthma attack.
“She gave a moving speech,” Page said. “We were all moved by her words. It’s a moment that really cannot be described, but one I was glad to be a part of.”
Nyad showed her gratitude throughout the voyage, but Page was particularly moved by the thank you letter she sent last week to members of her team.
“Dr. Kaplan, to think that you, on literally one-week’s notice found two of your stars … to come out and take on the hefty role of Med Team is remarkable,” she wrote. “They were at the edge of the boat … every single minute of the swim …They all cried at different stages. They cried at the dire nature of the crisis. They cried to witness my courage in continuing. And they cried, I believe, at the heightened moment of human spirit that we all exhibited through those 41 hours.”
For Page, the experience is indelible. “Her determination was amazing,” he said. “I will never forget it.”
Nyad, who has swum in the Suez Canal, the Nile River and along the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, was the first person to swim from north to south across Lake Ontario. Her record for circling the island of Manhattan in 1975 in 7 hours and 57 minutes broke a 50-year-old mark, and stood for 20 years.