Armed with a tandem board and an oxygen tank, Melissa Pappageorgas won’t let cystic fibrosis keep her from the lineup.
Originally published in Santa Cruz Waves.
In the fall of 2015, when Melissa Pappageorgas was immobilized in a hospital bed, all she wanted was to be at the beach, surf, and have a van. Three years later, on a windy afternoon in September, her partner, Joey Rodrigues, waxes their new tandem board while she sits in the back of their camper van. Two passersby stop to gawk, but they’re not looking at the quirky pineapple-shaped handles on the cabinet doors. Their eyes fixate on the oxygen tank standing at Melissa’s feet, then drift to the clear plastic tube running up her multicolored towel-poncho, and the nasal cannula looped around her freckled face. Melissa answers their questions politely, explaining that she has cystic fibrosis, and is on oxygen as a result of complications following a double lung transplant.
“People can’t find out about you until they know why you’re on oxygen,” she explains. “I’m tired of that being what defines me.” And though being a sick person is what makes her so inspiring, Melissa prefers to identify as a surfer. “I’m not trying to surf on oxygen to inspire people. I’m just a regular person that’s trying to make the best of a shitty situation.”
Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic disease that causes a buildup of mucus in the lungs, pancreas, and other organs. It leads to persistent lung infections and limits the ability to breathe over time. Melissa wasn’t diagnosed until the age of 14, but by her early 20s, home IV treatments and hospital stays had become an integral part of her life.
Enter the Maui Ola Foundation, a nonprofit that introduces surfing and ocean activities as a natural therapy to people living with genetic diseases. In May 2010, Melissa attended the inaugural Maui Ola Surf Experience Day at Cowell Beach and went surfing for the first time, coughing up several cups full of mucus in the process. “It made me so much less embarrassed to cough wherever I was,” Melissa says. Almost immediately, she became afflicted with the surfing bug, travelling with Maui Ola to Hawaii, and meeting Shawn “Barney” Barron, who became a dear friend.
“Surfing’s been the thing that I think healed me,” she says. For a few years, Melissa thought she had found the key to health. She surfed with Barney twice a week at places like Cowell’s, Steamer Lane, and Its Beach. “Barney would never go to the Eastside, obviously, because Westsiders turn into dust if they go over there,” Melissa laughs. Despite 40 percent lung capacity, she participated in sprint triathlons. And in 2014, she met Joey, an instructor at Club Ed Surf School.
The following year, however, “the shit hit the fan.” Barney passed away in May, and then in August, Melissa was hospitalized for the first time in two years. As her lung function declined rapidly, she was transitioned to a tracheal tube and placed on life support. At one point, her friends and family all said their goodbyes. And then, on Nov. 3, 2015, Melissa received a double lung transplant.
However, Melissa’s recovery wasn’t—and still isn’t—easy. “It took a very long time and very small increments of becoming a person again,” she says. Imagine not being able to speak for two months, not sitting on a toilet for three months, not surfing for a year.
“So many people have the misperception that you have new lungs and you’re cured,” Melissa says. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. In the spring of 2017, Melissa was hospitalized for six weeks and placed on oxygen. When the Maui Ola Surf Experience Day rolled around, she almost decided not to attend rather than face sitting on the beach.
“Joey kind of tricked me into surfing on oxygen the first time,” Melissa says. He suggested that they put the oxygen tank in a wet/dry bag and get on a paddleboard together, so that at least she could enjoy the Maui Ola event out in the water with her friends. Five minutes after they paddled out, Joey convinced her to catch a wave. “I didn’t convince her at all, actually,” Joey interjects. “I just started paddling for a wave and she started screaming like a banshee.” The couple caught three waves that day.
As the community caught wind of the story, local businesses offered support. O’Neill Wetsuits designed a custom backpack to hold the oxygen tank, using a modified impact vest with the front padding removed. The zippered pocket for the oxygen tank is positioned at a slant so Joey is able to turn his head comfortably. O’Neill also provided Melissa with a special wetsuit that contains built-in padding for her feeding tube. Pearson Arrow Surfboards equipped the couple with a tandem board. The 14-foot single fin is branded with their logo: an avocado with a heart-shaped pit.
Surfing on oxygen is still a complicated endeavor. When the two wipe out, Joey bearhugs Melissa to keep the oxygen tube from getting ripped off. “I trust Joey,” Melissa says. “He’s totally in control and he knows what he’s doing.” Joey offers a markedly different perspective. “I just pretend that everything’s going to be alright and that I know what I’m doing,” he says. “The illusion of safety and security is huge.”
Local filmmaker Sebi Lee is producing a documentary about the quirky couple. The film is currently in the production phase and does not have a release date set. However, it does have a title: Sink or Surf.
“Surfing is one of the only things that makes me feel like myself, from before the transplant,” Melissa says. Time in the ocean, free from worrying about appointments and infusions, offers a sense of relief and meditation. And time out of the water spent working on things like the padded wetsuit, tandem board, and documentary “gives me a focus that isn’t being sick.”
Other goals Melissa is focused on are getting an electric bike, and surfing by herself—on oxygen. “I’m going to stop waiting to do the stuff I want to do,” she says. “I’m just going to figure out how to do it on oxygen.” Insurance won’t cover a prescription for filling a smaller tank, but Melissa is determined to find a solution.
“It would have been really easy to just not be a surfer anymore after going through what I went through and being on oxygen,” Melissa says. “Deciding to not take no for an answer was the best thing I could have done.”
For more information on the documentary, visit sinkorsurffilm.com.