Lost at Sea

Shipwreck survivor finds closure 30 years after rescue.

When JanLaree De Julius walked onto the helipad atop UC San Diego Medical Center-Hillcrest this past May, memories and emotions came flooding back to her. More than 30 years earlier, she had landed at the same exact spot, dehydrated, bruised and battered after nearly three days adrift in the open ocean, 160 miles off the coast.

Former patient JanLaree De Julius at UC San Diego Medical Center-Hillcrest
Former patient JanLaree De Julius (right) reconnects with caregivers at UC San Diego Medical Center-Hillcrest, where she received treatment 30 years ago after being lost at sea.

It was January 1988, and she and her then-husband, Joseph, were sailing a 42-foot trimaran from Mexico to California when 70-mile-per-hour winds and 40-foot waves capsized their boat, leaving them floating in the ocean for a total of 66 hours.

“We had no food or water. We hung on to the boat and talked about family and friends,” said De Julius. “When Joseph started to hear music and voices, I got really nervous.”

After the storm subsided, the couple was finally able to use their emergency radio to transmit an SOS and alert rescue crews. “I just wanted out of my ‘Gumby’ suit,” said De Julius, referring to the bright orange immersion survival suit that certainly saved their lives. “It stank to high heaven. I had been in it for three days.”

De Julius’ injuries were minor, while her husband’s were more serious, with complications due to hypothermia. His core temperature had dropped to 81 degrees and his organs were shutting down. But both fully recovered after their stay in UC San Diego Health’s Level 1 trauma center, the first-ever in the region.

“Our trauma center has grown considerably in volume since the time when JanLaree and Joseph were patients,” said Jay Doucet, MD, chief of the Division of Trauma, Surgical Critical Care, Burns and Acute Care Surgery at UC San Diego Health.  “When we opened in 1984, we treated approximately 650 trauma patients annually; now we treat more than 3,000.”

The pair arrived at UC San Diego Medical Center with no identification, clothing or money. “All of our possessions were still floating off the coast of San Diego,” said De Julius. “But at discharge, one of the nurses gave me clothes, another arranged for lodging and one nurse even loaned me her car so I could get cash and a new ID.”

Those acts of compassion motivated De Julius to return to UC San Diego Medical Center three decades later to revisit her medical team and tour the hospital.

“It means the world to have former patients visit and for us to see them healthy and happy,” said Sandy Petty, RN, senior intensive care and trauma nurse at UC San Diego Health.

“I could see the rooftop of the San Diego Coast Guard Station off to the west while standing on the helipad, and I started crying,” De Julius said. “They weren’t sad tears. It was a much-needed release.”

De Julius also said she still sails when the opportunity presents itself. “Except now,” she says, “I stay close to shore.”

Learn more about De Julius’s experience: tritonmag.com/castaway