In the cold winters living in Chicago, Sanjay Bhojraj dreamed of one day learning to surf.
So when he moved to Southern California a few years ago after getting a job at Mission Hospital, the cardiologist was determined to soak in the Orange County lifestyle by buying a surfboard and wetsuit.
Something, however, kept him out of the water: a fear of sharks. The doctor had heard about a shark attack at Corona del Mar a few years back, in the same waters he liked to train for triathlons, so he let his surf gear collect dust.
But as someone who fixes hearts for a living, he knows how fragile life can be – and it took one special surfing patient to give him the push he needed to follow his own heart.
“You can’t live in fear your whole life,” Bhojraj said on a recent day, still soaked from an evening surf session in Dana Point. “You have to just do this.”
A wave of miracles
Bob Kiefer doesn’t remember much about what happened that February morning last year at San Onofre State Beach – the spot he’s been surfing since the late ’70s when he left cold Minnesota behind for Southern California.
But he knew something was wrong as he sat in his car after a morning surf session at a spot called “Old Mans.” He had his first heart attack in 1996, and through the years has had heart issues that required several stints be placed to help his heart function.
Kiefer tried to call for help, but there was no cell reception at the remote, tucked-away beach south of San Clemente.
Longtime surfer friends Don Craig and Mick Rosien happened to stop at his car to say hello just at the right moment, realizing the fellow surfer was in desperate need of help.
Craig darted down the beach to a film crew that was shooting a segment not far from where Kiefer, who retired as a Orange County Sheriff’s Department special officer in 2008, was having a heart attack.
A paramedic with the film crew radioed lifeguards, who called in Camp Pendleton emergency responders to take Kiefer to Mission Hospital.
He had no pulse and wasn’t breathing. His body temperature dropped to 91 degrees.
Once at the hospital, Bhojraj and another doctor, Donald Rediker, restored blood flow to Kiefer’s heart, implanting a medical tech device called an Impella CP heart pump that allowed his heart to rest and recover.
“It was literally one miracle after another,” Kiefer, 75, said. “If one thing had been pulled out of that chain of events, it would have been over for me.”
After three days, Kiefer’s heart function returned to normal. After nine days, he left the hospital for rehab. In just a few months, Kiefer was back in the water enjoying what he loved most: surfing.
Saying thanks with waves
If he ever had a cardiologist tell him he should give up surfing, he’d get another cardiologist, Kiefer joked.
That wouldn’t be a problem with Bhojraj as his doctor, who at some point along Kiefer’s rehab journey revealed his dream of becoming a surfer and the fear of sharks that stopped him.
Kiefer figured sharing the surf stoke was a fitting gift to someone who had helped save his life. So he arranged to meet Bhojraj down at Doheny State Beach, a beginner spot with rolling waves, to teach him to surf.
“It’s my way of saying thanks,” Kiefer said.
And from the moment he first stood up on the waves, it was obvious Bhojraj was hooked.
“He would paddle out and he was smiling ear to ear. I knew what he was going through,” Kiefer said. “It was 40 years ago, but I remember that feeling.”
That same beach has now become a meeting place where the duo paddles out together every Sunday to ride waves.
It’s a unique doctor-patient relationship that goes beyond the hospital.
“I wish I had the time to spend with every one of my patients, because I think everyone has their story,” Bhojraj said. “But one of the things that I love is that I’m a key player in a very dark chapter for a lot of people and I help get them through.”
But typically, people move on with live their lives, not wanting to see their doctors and be reminded of those hard hospital visits.
Being able to see his his patient-turned-surf-buddy do what he loves each Sunday, and sharing in the enjoyment, brings something special to Bhojraj’s own heart, he said.
“There’s the sport of surfing and there’s the spirituality of surfing,” Bhojraj said. “I was really moved by the spirituality of this endeavor.
“It’s this peaceful experience,” he said. “Every time I catch a wave, it’s that feeling that comes over you, being connected with something greater than yourself. You feel the power of something bigger than you.”