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Patient Lost at Sea for 66 Hours Revisits Hospital Three Decades Later


By Michelle Brubaker and Gabrielle Johnston   |   June 25, 2019

​When JanLaree De Julius, 64, walked onto the helipad atop UC San Diego Medical Center in Hillcrest, a flood of emotions and memories came back to her. More than 30 years earlier, she had been transported to the same exact spot: dehydrated, bruised and battered.

At the time, she said, “I felt like I had been in a fight with Mike Tyson.”

JanLaree newspaper article

On the morning of January 20, 1988, De Julius and then-husband Joseph were plucked out of the ocean by a Coast Guard helicopter and flown to UC San Diego Medical Center. The couple had been navigating a 42-foot trimaran from Mexico to California when they were caught in a category 1 hurricane. Winds reaching 70 miles per hour and waves rising 40 feet capsized their boat, leaving them adrift in the open sea for 66 hours, 200 miles off the coast of San Diego.

“We had no food or water. We hung on to the boat and talked about family and friends,” said De Julius. “When Joseph started to hear music and voices the second day, I got really nervous.”

During the storm, the couple’s Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon did not function, pounded by nonstop waves. But once the weather subsided, the beacon was finally able to pinpoint their location and alert rescue crews.

“I remember feeling really unstable when I landed on the hospital helipad. I didn’t have my land legs yet,” said De Julius. Preliminary assessment by the medical staff determined that De Julius had minor injuries, but Joseph’s were more serious. He had a body core temperature of 81 degrees. “His major organs were starting to shut down,” De Julius said.

Rescue crews said the couple would likely not have survived in the 56 degree water for more than 12 hours without their “Gumby” suits — waterproof suits that keep wearers dry when immersed in cold water. Nonetheless, De Julius remembers them with mixed feelings.

“I just wanted out. It stank to high heaven because I had been in it for three days with a mixture of salt water and bodily fluids. When a very kind nurse came over to help me take it off, I was so thankful.”

Joseph spent 10 days receiving a variety of treatments. Both recovered fully.

“It was at discharge that I was rescued a second time,” said De Julius.

When they arrived at UC San Diego Medical Center, the couple had no identification, clothing or money. “All of our possessions were still floating in the ocean. One of the nurses gave me clothes, another arranged for lodging and one nurse even loaned me her car so I could get cash and a new ID. It was above and beyond anything I could have expected.”

It was that level of care and thoughtfulness that motivated De Julius to return to the hospital three decades later to meet medical staff and tour the areas she and Joseph were treated.

“It was really important to me to come back and thank anyone who may have been involved in our case or knew people involved,” said De Julius. “I know it was many moons ago, but I have never forgotten the true compassion that was shown to us.”

JanLaree and Dr. Doucet

Upon her return, De Julius was greeted by Jay Doucet, MD, chief of the Division of Trauma, Surgical Critical Care, Burns and Acute Care Surgery at UC San Diego Health. “Although I wasn’t a physician at the time of the De Julius’ case, I was not at all surprised to hear about the extra steps taken by our doctors and nurses. It is something that I see every day in our trauma center.”

UC San Diego Health leads the nation in trauma care, operating the region's first Level 1 Trauma Center. The trauma team operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The resuscitation unit is surrounded with state-of-the-art monitoring, imaging and life-support technologies.

Trauma surgeons treat injuries that include everything from falls to the consequences of motor vehicle accidents, assaults, gunshot and stab wounds and burns. Fewer than 8 percent of hospitals in the nation operate a trauma center. UC San Diego Health’s trauma center is one of only four in the nation where trauma patients are treated in a free-standing trauma center not located within the emergency room. It is also part of San Diego’s Trauma System, a collaboration of six hospitals in the county.

“Our trauma center has grown considerably in volume since the opening of the San Diego Trauma System in 1984 and when JanLaree and Joseph were patients,” said Doucet. “In our first year, we admitted 667 major trauma patients, now we admit more than 3,000 annually.”

Since 1988, UC San Diego Health’s trauma center has admitted more than 66,000 trauma patients. The health system was also one of the first academic centers to operate an emergency medical services (EMS) helicopter, which is now managed by commercial operators. 

“Our trauma bays and surgical intensive care unit are still located in the same place as when JanLaree and Joseph arrived, but we now have more advanced technology,” said Doucet. “The nurses and doctors who cared for the couple are almost all retired now, but they have left us a great legacy in creating one of the first and best trauma centers and systems in the world.”

For De Julius, her return visit provided clarity. “I could see the rooftop of the San Diego Coast Guard Station off to the west while standing on the helipad and I started crying. They weren’t sad tears. It was a much-needed release.”

JanLaree with trauma nurse

Medical staff and De Julius walked through the trauma center and surgical intensive care unit, as well as the Regional Burn Center. Staff taught her about the services provided, showed her the latest in technology and introduced her to the specialized medical teams.

“It was very special for us to have the opportunity to talk to JanLaree,” said Doucet.

“Most patients are in shock or are not able to speak due to their critical injuries when they arrive in the trauma center from the helipad. It is amazing to me that JanLaree remembers her experience so well,” said Sandy Petty, RN, senior intensive care and trauma center nurse at UC San Diego Health. “It really means the world to us to have former patients come back and visit and for us to see them so healthy and happy.”

De Julius, who is now retired after a career in executive administrative roles and living on the Pacific Northwest Coast, still sails when the opportunity presents itself. “Except now, I stay close to shore.”

“I am so grateful for being able to come back to UC San Diego Medical Center. Dr. Doucet, the nurses and the public information officer that accompanied me on my visit exhibited the same level of care and understanding I experienced there 30 years ago.”

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