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Staph Infection Wipes Out Surfer

Times Staff Writer

For surfers who work 9 to 5, solace comes on weekends when they can paddle out at their favorite beach. For surf videographer Timmy Turner, it was never that simple.

From his home in Huntington Beach, he traveled to France, Bolivia, South Africa and Australia, all before turning 16.

Now at 25, the journey has led him home again -- this time fighting for his life against a virulent staph infection that developed after a trip to Mexico. After spending more than a month in the intensive-care unit of Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, Turner was moved Wednesday to a rehabilitation center at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton.

“Timmy nearly lost his life fighting this, but we feel that he is really strong and doctors believe he will have a full recovery,” said Jessica Turner, his wife. “They’re calling him our miracle man.”

In Huntington Beach, Turner is a favorite son. Longtime residents recall seeing him busing dishes at the family restaurant, Sugar Shack on Main Street.

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“Part of the thing is, we all saw this kid grow up,” said Andy Verdone, the surfing coach at Huntington Beach High School where Turner captained the team his senior year.

To help defray medical costs, a fundraiser is being planned for Turner on March 29. It will be at Huntington Beach High’s performing arts auditorium.

Many recall young Turner surfing in amateur contests, then high school events, before he flourished as a videographer. “Timmy’s a brilliant young filmmaker,” said Peter Townend, a former world surfing champion.

Although Turner didn’t pioneer the art of holding a camera while surfing giant waves -- part of a genre that puts audiences inside the breaking wave -- he combined his in-the-water shots with an appreciation of the land and local culture.

Turner would go to any lengths to document the adventure inherent in finding a perfect wave.

His film “Second Thoughts” chronicled a trip he and two buddies took to Indonesia to surf uncrowded waves on a remote island with a limited supply of food and water.

The film won Surfer Magazine’s annual poll for the best video of 2004.

His latest work, “The Tsunami Diaries,” which documented relief efforts in Indonesia immediately after the Dec. 26, 2004, disaster, may have nearly cost him his life.

Exactly how and when Turner was infected is a mystery to his family and his doctors. The virulent staph infection attacked his lungs, got into his bloodstream and then his brain. Turner’s physician, Dr. Philip Robinson, an infectious disease specialist, said it took up residence in his sinuses and then began attacking his skull.

When Turner arrived at the hospital, he had a fever of 107. At first, Robinson was unsure whether Turner would survive, and, if he did, whether the disease would leave him with some mental or physical disability.

During one of two brain surgeries, doctors removed about half of the top of Turner’s skull because of the infection. They will later put a protective covering in place, Robinson said. Until then, Turner will wear a helmet.

Doctors are now optimistic but cautious. Turner’s speech, memory and other functions have returned in full or probably will with rehabilitation, Robinson said.

The well-muscled athlete lost 40 pounds from his 185-pound frame, and has weakened after a nearly two-month hospital stay, relatives said.

Will Turner be able to return to surfing?

“Only time will tell,” said his surgeon, Dr. Richard B. Kim.

Turner’s family provides online updates of his condition at www.timmyturner.org.

Surf filmmakers and veteran surfers know the risks involved with travel. They often find themselves in tropical climates, weighing the benefits of getting the ultimate wave or footage against the dangers of injury or disease.

“The most difficult thing is to see a perfect wave at the mouth of a contaminated river, and weigh the realities ... beautiful wave, possible staph,” said John Severson, founder of Surfer Magazine.

“What would a surfer do? I would have surfed it in my youth when I was immortal. Now, let me see that wave again....”

For Turner, who once attacked the best waves that Indonesia had to offer, life now means getting accustomed to checking out the surf from a distance.

“But I’ll get strong again,” he said this week. “I can’t wait to get back home.”


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