Team Hydro braves the Bay | March 6, 2009 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Living - March 6, 2009

Team Hydro braves the Bay

Danville brothers do Alcatraz swim against hydrocephalus to help their sister

by Peter Finlayson

I chose not to think about John Paul Scott as I leapt off a ferry and into the Bay at Alcatraz Island last summer. Scott is the only Alcatraz inmate ever to have successfully swum to the mainland. Upon reaching the beach, however, he collapsed from exhaustion and hypothermia; he was recaptured a few hours later when they found him still unconscious on the shore.

I can see why. The water was numbingly cold. As I entered the Bay, my hands and feet stung as all the blood rushed out of them in my body's fruitless attempt to keep my core temperature up. Each and every breath required concentration and concerted effort.

What was I doing swimming against the choppy swells and currents of the Bay in nothing but a Speedo and a cap? Was I crazy or what?!

It all started back in 1984 when my sister Kate was born three months premature. She contracted meningitis, which progressed to encephalitis, and eventually hydrocephalus.

My sister is amazing. She's endured more than 70 brain surgeries and countless hospitalizations. Last summer she had a particularly tough stint in the intensive care unit and it wasn't clear she would make it.

My younger brother and I felt helpless. What could we do? Last year Sam and I decided we would try to raise awareness and funds for the nonprofit Hydrocephalus Association (HA). Both products of San Ramon Valley High School's water polo and swim teams, we thought of a way to put the skills we learned there to good use.

Joined by two of our teammates from Stanford's Water Polo team, we formed Team Hydro and registered to take part in the annual 1.7 mile Sharkfest swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco. HA funds research and performs advocacy work on behalf of those suffering from hydrocephalus.

Hydrocephalus is a little-known, life-threatening condition affecting the brain, and afflicts 1 million Americans. Each year 40,000 surgeries are performed in attempts to treat hydrocephalus (that's one every 13 minutes for any math whizzes out there).

Those who suffer from hydrocephalus are often ostracized or ridiculed as "weird" because there is something "wrong" with their brain. In actuality, the brain of someone with hydrocephalus is remarkable. The problem is that the fluid surrounding the brain (which everyone has) is either overproduced or under-absorbed, causing pressure to increase in the patient's head. This pressure results in chronic headaches and, if left untreated, death. There is still no cure for hydrocephalus.

We began e-mailing friends and family to educate them about hydrocephalus and to encourage them to donate to the cause. A few days before the race, we were excited to be making a difference, when it dawned on us that none of us had ever competed in an open-water swim race before!

As water polo players we shrugged it off - how hard could it be, no one would even be pulling us underwater, right? However! In a cold pool it usually takes just a few hard strokes for me to warm myself up, but in the 55-degree water of the Bay, it was longer than that before I could even put my face in the water. Soon I was completely numb. I wasn't warm, but I didn't feel cold anymore, either.

All things considered, we did remarkably well. The four of us happened to be in four separate divisions and Team Hydro wound up with three 1st Place and one 2nd Place finish. What was even more gratifying, though, was that we managed to raise more than $10,000 for the HA and brought a big smile to my sister's lips.

Though we were elated, we aren't satisfied. Most people have still never even heard of hydrocephalus. The only treatment for hydrocephalus is a surgical procedure involving the insertion of a shunt (essentially a little valve) in the head, which allows for the fluid to be drained and the pressure to be alleviated. The problem is that there have been no real advancements in the treatment of this condition in nearly 50 years. Shunts remain susceptible to clogging, malfunction and infection, and all of these complications require additional surgery: brain-surgery.

Undaunted, we set to work on Team Hydro 2009. We recruited friends and family to join us, made a recruiting video, created a Web page to streamline the donation process, and reached out to the media in order to help spread the word. So far our roster has grown to 23 swimmers ranging in ages from 12 - 60!

We recently launched This year our goal is to double our number from 2008 and raise $20,000. Please help us in our cause. Every little bit helps. You can make a difference in the lives of millions. We know times are tough - so even if all you can do is learn more about hydrocephalus, we thank you for your support.

Pencil us in on your calendar for Aug. 15. We will be washing up on the shore of San Francisco's Aquatic Park starting around 9:25 a.m., the awards/closing ceremony is at noon, and the party is in between. Please visit or email to learn more or to donate to "Team Hydro: taking a bite out of hydrocephalus one stroke at a time."

* 1st Place: Wetsuit 20-24 yrs

1st Place: Non-wetsuit 20-24 yrs

1st Place: Non-wetsuit 15-19 yrs

2nd Place: Non-wetsuit 25-29 yrs


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