The San Francisco surfer, a father of two, died after a surfing accident

The San Francisco surfer, a father of two, died after a surfing accident

San Francisco surfer Kirby Lee has been hitting waves during surf breaks all over the world.

San Francisco surfer Kirby Lee has been hitting waves during surf breaks all over the world.

Courtesy Lee Family

Kirby Lee, a longtime San Francisco surfer and father of two, died Nov. 6 from injuries sustained during a surfing accident four days earlier, according to his family. Lee was 54 years old.

What exactly happened in the water on November 2 is still unknown. It was a relatively quiet day for Ocean Beach. While the waves there can easily reach 20 feet on the biggest days, Jose Lopez, another surfer present at the scene, described the waves that day as “tiny.” Lee was wearing a helmet, as many Ocean Beach surfers do, according to surfers at the scene.

“Ocean Beach can be a very rough and treacherous beach for people with no surfing experience, but that was not the case that day,” Lopez said, adding that the relatively calm conditions were “unusual.”

Brian Garcia, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, estimated that most of the waves that day were in the 3- to 5-foot range, with an occasional wave reaching 6 feet, “which isn’t big for OB — it’s a fun size.” He told SFGATE.

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Lee, an experienced surfer and associate professor of pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco, was found unconscious in the water before noon. Another surfer took him to the beach, where a group of people performed CPR and waited for paramedics to arrive, according to Lopez. Captain Justin Shore of the San Francisco Fire Department said Lee was “pulseless and not breathing.” He was rushed to UCSF Medical Center, where he was placed on life support.

Lee’s sister, Sabrina Umphris, told SFGATE by phone that doctors could not conclusively determine what led to her brother’s death.

“They ruled out a heart attack, they ruled out a stroke, there were no injuries, nothing on the outside of that body to indicate that he was hit by his board and passed out, nothing,” Umphris said. “We asked the doctors several times. It seemed like they were very thorough. It’s a mystery.”

In his final days, he was surrounded by his family, friends and colleagues.

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“Doctors said there was significant brain damage due to lack of oxygen,” his sister said. “Kirby was an organ donor. They were able to successfully transplant his heart and kidneys.”

Kirby Lee was an associate professor of clinical pharmacy in the Department of Clinical Pharmacy at the University of California, San Francisco.

Kirby Lee was an associate professor of clinical pharmacy in the Department of Clinical Pharmacy at the University of California, San Francisco.

Courtesy Lee Family

Lee grew up in San Bernardino and attended Riverside Polytechnic High School. In those high school years, he taught himself to surf, catching waves with friends on the beaches of Orange County. Surfing became a lifelong passion; He has paddled waves at popular breaks around the world, including Australia, El Salvador, Fiji, Nicaragua and South Africa. He continued to surf throughout college, starting his undergraduate studies at San Diego State University and graduating from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in Biopsychology. He earned his master’s degree in pharmacology from Boston University School of Medicine and came to San Francisco in 1998 to attend the University of California, San Francisco, where he earned a doctorate in pharmacy and a master’s degree from the MAS degree program in clinical research. He quickly became a regular at Ocean Beach, which was close to where he lived with his family.

“He was passionate about a lot of things, but he was always very happy in the water. That’s what his friends said. ‘Always happy in the water,'” Umphress said.

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Ocean Beach is a choppy break where the currents can be dangerously strong, depending on the ebb and flow of the tides. The beach has “rip currents” that move from shore to sea, and “long rip currents” that run parallel to the beach, said Garcia, the meteorologist. These currents, coupled with the highly variable size of the waves, can make it a dangerous place to surf.

“It’s a deceptively dangerous beach,” Garcia said. “You could totally move in there.”

His old friend Sam Awad told SFGATE that Lee loved big waves.

“I would sit with him, and a lot of times I would go inside to get more smaller waves,” Awad said. “He had great patience and would always wait for the larger groups to arrive and pick out some of the biggest, longest, best looking waves. Kirby had no fear and always seemed calm in the heavy waves.

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Lopez, one of the surfers at Ocean Beach on the day of Lee’s accident, told SFGATE that he helped administer CPR along with an off-duty paramedic, explaining that helping others in the water is part of the surf rules and culture at Ocean Beach.

“It’s a very nice, tight-knit community,” Lopez said of the surfing community there. “Any one of us could be in this situation. Any one of us would help someone else. We’re always keeping an eye out for others. Everyone sees each other in the water and shares that passion. Surfing connects us together.”

Mark Lee, Kirby Lee’s brother, said many friends and colleagues from the San Francisco community visited his brother in the intensive care unit in his final days. Colleagues and students from UCSF stopped by to share their stories about Lee inside and outside of academia, he said.

“I then realized he had a much deeper connection and influence,” Mark Lee wrote to SFGATE in an email.

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As an associate professor of clinical pharmacy in the Department of Clinical Pharmacy at UCSF, Lee conducts research, obtains grants, publishes scientific articles, teaches pharmacy classes, and mentors students. He also focused on treating elderly patients, especially those with dementia, and used his clinical research focused on medication management to improve his patients’ outcomes and quality of life.

“He was a gifted teacher, pharmacist, clinician, and clinical researcher,” Dr. Lisa Krohn, chair of the Department of Clinical Pharmacy at the UCSF School of Pharmacy, wrote in an email to SFGATE. “He was devoted to our pharmacy students, spending hours Immeasurable guidance in their research projects and careers. If anyone was looking for Kirby on campus, he was probably meeting with his students.

Kirby Lee was a regular surfer at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Kirby Lee was a regular surfer at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Courtesy Lee Family

Lee had other interests beyond his work and surfing. He played guitar, had recently learned the drums, and was an accomplished volleyball player, teaching his son to play and helping coach his son’s team, his brother Mark said.

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“Kirby is much loved and will be forever missed,” Mark wrote in an email to SFGATE. “He was a great brother, father, friend and colleague. Kirby lived a great life, but he had so much more to give.”

Lee will be remembered most for his kindness and sense of adventure, said Harry Faraff, Lee’s longtime friend and brother at UCLA. Faraff told SFGATE about a time when he and Lee ran out of gas on U.S. Highway 101 and ended up skating on the highway.

“We shared countless hours surfing, laughing, making memories, playing volleyball, and talking through the good times and the hard times together,” Faraf wrote in an email. “…Lee’s friendly demeanor and welcoming smile helped him make friends wherever he went – whether he was surfing at Ocean Beach, playing volleyball at Piper Park, or traveling to surf spots around the world. He is truly a special person who left a huge hole in Our hearts.

Lee is survived by his wife, Tammy; His son Ivan. His daughter Amara. His brother Mark and sister Sabrina and their families.

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    (tags for translation) UCSF Medical Center 

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