Man’s reward for Belmar ocean rescue? Major medical bills
BELMAR — No good deed goes unpunished.
When Kristian Falkenstein interrupted a volleyball game to save a man caught in a rip current he thought he was doing the right thing. He had no way of knowing that he would be left holding steep medical bills after the physically draining experience.
Falkenstein said he makes the trip from his Pennsylvania home to the Belmar beaches to play volleyball regularly during the summer, so his trip there on Sept. 23 started out as nothing out of the ordinary. This trip, however, ended up with him, the man he saved, two lifeguards and a Belmar police officer all being rescued by the Coast Guard.
“As I was walking back to serve the ball, I noticed people were pointing, there was a lot of commotion going on, and something just didn’t seem right,” he said. “I said you guys hold on a sec, there’s something going on here.”
What was going on, according to Falkenstein, was one of dozens of people that have found themselves caught in a dangerous rip current this summer.
“He wasn’t screaming or anything, but he was bobbing up and down. He was clearly stuck in the riptide.”
With the summer beach season over Falkenstein said there were no lifeguards in the area, and no other first responders who could help the man at that time. Having worked as a lifeguard before, he said he decided he had to do something to try and help.
Falkenstein said he jumped into the ocean after 6 p.m. and said it was already starting to get dark, making the rescue that much more challenging.
“As soon as I got out where the rip tide was, the waves were crashing real hard,” he said. “My biggest concern was that he would take me down.”
Using his lifeguarding skills, Falkenstein said he was able to communicate with the man who he said did not speak English. Even still, the force of the waves and the current made bringing him to shore impossible.
“We were stuck in a nasty spot where it was kind of like a washing machine cycle,” he said. “As soon as I would get him under the arms, the riptide would bring a wave that was straight vertical and then would mash down on us. I would lift him above the wave as high as I could and then swim low under the water as possible to minimize the break of the waves.”
When a police officer eventually swam out to meet them, Falkenstein said he brought a floatation device for them to use. Falkenstein said he still had to make sure that they all got out of danger.
“I did a sidestroke trying to swim the police officer and the victim out to see to get a breath,” he said. “We got away from danger and we were still waiting for more people to come. This was going to take a lot of resources for the rescue.”
Eventually, he said the Coast Guard arrived on the scene, but even they did not get close to where the current was at its strongest. He said he was the first to swim to the rescue boat before helping load the others into the boat on the way back to shore.
“The victim was in shambles,” he said. “He kept shaking my hand and nodding his head. He was very appreciative. It definitely scared the hell out of him, and scared the hell out of me too.”
It was when they got back to the shore that the day got even challenging and potentially more expensive for Falkenstein. While he said he felt basically fine, there was “a lot of commotion” with paramedics trying to convince him to get checked out even more.
“I’m like, I’m fine. They said you can die of a dry drowning in your sleep,” he said.
Next thing he knew, he said he was on a gurney on his way to the hospital. He said hospital staff told him that if he declined care he would not be able to use his insurance for what had been done and would “get stuck with the whole bill.”
“If you leave now and don’t give us your insurance you’re going to have a huge bill without insurance,” he said he was told. “We need to observe you. We can’t just let you go.”
Eventually he said he was able to get out, but still has to work with a $750 deductible and a $500 payment for the emergency room in addition to any additional costs incurred from tests or other services. So far, he said he has only gotten one bill but doesn’t know if there is more to come.
In an effort to get help with the bills for doing a good deed, Falkenstein said he reached out to Mayor Matt Doherty to see if the borough could help defray the costs.
The mayor released a statement saying that “we appreciate his service in attempting to rescue someone in distress, but unfortunately, we’re precluded by state law from paying for his medical bills.”
The state constitution does not allow local governments to donate money.
Falkenstein said he understands the borough’s position, saying they “probably want to discourage people from doing something like that.” He had hoped that the good Samaritan law might work in his favor even though he did not perform the rescue in an official capacity.
“It wasn’t like I had no idea what I was doing and just jumped in the water and would make more of a problem,” he said. “Of course, anytime anyone makes a rescue there’s a risk, it doesn’t matter how strong you are.”.
Despite the risk of drowning himself and the potential financial implications, Falkenstein said he wouldn’t have done anything differently.
“It was a split decision,” he said. “It was something that I didn’t have a ton of time to react. I knew the level of danger that was out there. I knew help was on the way. Whatever the medical bills are they are.”
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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com