R.S.V.P. / ORANGE COUNTY : Tough Sledding but Operating Nicely

Gentlemen, start your gurneys

The air was thick with tension Sunday evening under the multicolor dome at South Coast Plaza's Jewel Court as eight teams, each visualizing victory, plotted their final strategies. Long minutes of training were about to be put to the test in the first-ever South Coast Plaza 552 Gurney Race, to benefit the 552 Club, a support organization for Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach.

Each team--three gurney-pushers and a victim, er, make that patient--would make the treacherous sprint down the 552-foot course from the alley to the finish line, racing against the clock. But only the fastest crew would win the grand prize: new shoes for all, courtesy of event sponsor Bally of Switzerland.

"We're racing them one at a time, so we don't have a 'Ben-Hur' situation," said 552 Club president John Applegate.

Just in case, he and a full complement of other doctors were standing by, along with an ambulance and crew from Seal's Ambulance Service.

Except for the Bally of Switzerland home team, which sponsored the event to launch its new, expanded store, all the teams represented upcoming 552 Club fund-raisers, with proceeds to benefit the $400,000 renovation and expansion of the hospital's emergency room.

Bally also chipped in $10,000 toward that fund, in addition to providing a pre-race buffet. The Christmas Carol Ball team, for example, was made up of four Hoag radiologists, dressed from the waist up in black-tie and from the waist down in shorts and running shoes. They paced nervously as race time approached, wearing dark glasses and tapping red-tipped canes on the polished tile floor in front of them. "We depend on our vision every day to make proper diagnoses," team member Fred Birnberg said.

Strategic secrets:

"We carbo-loaded," said Kelly Bozza, captain of the Monday Night Football Membership Mixer team. To speed things up, gurney-rider Matt Engen memorized his medical insurance policy number.

"We're going for style points," said Newport Classic Pro-Am golf tournament team captain Bill Pierpoint. "We plan to make two or three putts along the way, go for some eagles, birdies and lots of double-bogies. Golf is not a game you play fast."

To motivate his team, Western Barbecue gurney passenger John Rodrigue announced that "I'm not feeling well at all." The cowboy boot-clad runners said their secret plan was to change into running shoes just before lining up for the start.

The odds-on favorite, the Hoag emergency-room team, used lightweight passenger Susie Johnson, an emergency medical technician, to increase its advantage. "She hasn't eaten in three days," said team member Kate Hofley, also an EMT.

Other teams represented the Billfish tournament and the 10th annual Stag Shoot.

The crowd of 552 Club members lined the course, staying clear of the treacherous (and slippery) turn just inside the mall entrance, as the teams roared past one by one.

And the winner . . .

The Hoag emergency room team beat out the radiologists by a slim margin, finishing the course in 23 seconds. The radiologists, with a 25-second time, won Bally of Switzerland key chains.

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