A life-threatening illness proves to be a career changer for pro surfer
Torrance resident Alex Gray, 29, makes his living as a professional surfer,
chasing the big waves. He’s won many championships and has been
on the cover of countless magazines since he started surfing at age 10,
trying to keep up with his big brother. But an incident six years ago
almost ended his surfing career and his life. In December 2008 Gray was
surfing in Hawaii as part of the World Surfing League competitive series.
He started having chest pains but ignored them because he was flying home
for the Christmas holidays in a few days. Once he was home, the pain continued.
“It went from me having pain in my chest to not being able to breathe
to waking up in the middle of the night on my hands and knees, crying,
basically thinking I was dying,” recalls Gray. “At that point
I had a 104. fever.”
However, rather than rushing to the hospital his family waited, thinking
it was just gas or something equally benign. “We kept hoping it
would get better, but it got catastrophically worse,” says Gray.
Finally on Christmas Eve, Gray was so sick his parents took him to Torrance
Memorial Medical Center where X-rays revealed the entire left side of
his chest was covered in a white cloud, which made it impossible for doctors
to view any vital organs.
Gray was admitted and diagnosed with pleurisy, an inflammation of the membrane
surrounding the lungs and chest cavity. The pleural membrane is what allows
the lungs to inflate and deflate without hitting the ribs or inner wall
of the chest cavity. Doctors inserted two one-inch tubes into the lining
of his chest. Over the next four days, they drained 11/2 liters of the
fluid that had made breathing so painful and had clouded the X-ray.
Because pleurisy is typically found in older patients, Gray had many doctors
examining him. “I was a living petri dish. I had infectious disease
doctors coming every day to check on me,” recalls Gray. “I
had nurses coming in on the hour, which was amazing. Having that amount
of supervision was comforting because I was scared—very scared.
Whenever I would get a visit from one of the doctors and he had some answers,
it added a little light at the end of the tunnel.”
Pleurisy is a secondary condition that can arise from a viral or bacterial
infection. Doctors determined Gray had picked up a staph infection in
Hawaii and began treatment immediately.
After a week Gray was released, but he still had a long recovery ahead.
“I went home but still had horrible shortness of breath from the
scarring and trauma,” he recalls. “I had no energy. Every
day, I would wake up, take a five-minute walk on my street and have to
come back home to take a three-hour nap because I was so exhausted. My
body had so much healing to do.”
After three months of recuperation, Gray prepared to return to competitive
surfing only to learn his membership in the World Surfing League (WSL)
had expired while he was hospitalized. Despite the extenuating circumstances,
WSL officials stripped him of the status points he had earned in his four
years of competitive surfing, forcing him to start over as a beginner.
Consequently, Gray left the league and started chasing waves around the
globe. He now earns more money and has more fame than he ever did before.
“The pleurisy incident became the biggest blessing in disguise for
me and my surfing career. It’s funny that Mother Nature had to almost
kill me to get me on a different path, but that’s how life works,” he muses.
He quickly adds how thankful he is for the care he received. “I’m
super grateful to Torrance Memorial,” he says. “I’m
convinced that hospital has the best doctors in the world, because I’m
here today and doing just fine.”