Special Reports

ATV injuries at Oceano Dunes pain medical community

Larry Foreman, an emergency room doctor, stands in the trauma room at the Arroyo Grande Community Hospital. Foreman lobbies for greater ATV safety after treating so many youngsters who were hurt at the Oceano Dunes.
Larry Foreman, an emergency room doctor, stands in the trauma room at the Arroyo Grande Community Hospital. Foreman lobbies for greater ATV safety after treating so many youngsters who were hurt at the Oceano Dunes. TRIBUNE PHOTO BY JOE JOHNSTON

Those who live in and around the Oceano Dunes may look at off-roading from many perspectives, but there is one group that is close to single-minded about it: those who treat the injured.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has waged war on those who allow children to ride off-road vehicles.

Local doctors and nurses who minister to a steady stream of victims from the Dunes abhor the accidents.

Nurse Sheree Brekke was on the front lines when she worked in the emergency room at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center. She is currently director of house supervision, coordinating nursing services.

"Taking care of a patient who is newly paralyzed is one of the most heartbreaking things in the world," she said. In too many cases, "they'll never be able to stand up to pee, have sex, stand up with their family."

She scoffs at statements on some ATV Web sites that those who perished on the Dunes at least died "doing what they loved."

"If you want to die doing what you love, fine," Brekke says. "The problem is when you don't die," and spend the rest of your life — decades — crippled.

Brekke has a modest proposal for those who run the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area: "Put a long-term-care facility at the entrance to the Dunes and have (would-be riders) traipse by the injured." Posting the injuries, including the age of the driver and the nature of the injury, also would help, she said.

Local doctor's efforts

Of all the people involved in trying to slow down injuries at the Dunes, Dr. Larry Foreman is perhaps the best known.

He fought for legislation this year sponsored by state Sen. Abel Maldonado that would have made safety courses mandatory for youngsters under 16 and required that children under 12 ride appropriately sized ATVs.

The legislation died in an Assembly committee this summer, though Foreman and Maldonado both say they plan to try again.

Foreman, an Arroyo Grande emergency room doctor, backed by other physicians, has spent years pushing for legislation that will protect young people. For example, concessionaires are not required to teach young riders how to safely operate an ATV, he said.

It is not Foreman's first fight. A longtime employee of Arroyo Grande Community Hospital, he was on a shift in the emergency room in 2004, the Sunday after Labor Day, when three young people -- all under age 10--came in with injuries suffered at the Dunes.

He began to track children's injuries and recorded 230 in 2004 and 2005 for youths under age 14.

Among his findings:

  • 61 of the injured were female, 169 male;
  • 71 had fractures of the wrist, femur or spine;
  • 36 had "significant" lacerations;
  • 15 were younger than 7; three were 4 years old.

Foreman stressed that these are only the injuries Arroyo Grande hospital treated. Many go unreported, or the injured go to another hospital, sometimes away from the Central Coast, because many Dunes visitors are from the Central Valley, he said.

The doctor has sought in vain to bring about changes. In November 2005 he beseeched the county Board of Supervisors to pass a resolution asking the state to bar those under 14 from riding at the site.

Supervisors rejected the plea after hearing from Friends of the Oceano Dunes, an ATV lobby, and parks Superintendent Andrew Zilke.

They cited two often-heard objections to proposals like Foreman's.

First, kids will be kids. "I don't see how you're going to stop it. It's part of growing up," said Supervisor Harry Ovitt at the time.

Kevin P. Rice, a San Luis Obispo resident and member of Friends of Oceano Dunes, added at the time that "not every ER visit is a big deal." (Rice is not to be confused with the Pismo Beach city manager of the same name.)

Second, as Supervisor Katcho Achadjian said then, the responsibility lies with parents.

"Where does the buck stop?" Achadjian asked. "Obviously, not here."

"I was so naïve," Foreman said of his earlier lobbying efforts. "I just want to prevent kids from getting injured."