Coming up for air

Posted by Elizabeth Forst in Life After Paralysis on October 18, 2017 # Travel

This spring I engaged in a weeklong "scuba diver with disabilities trip" hosted by A1 Scuba and the Craig Hospital Therapeutic Recreation Department out of Denver, Colorado. We journeyed as a group of 50, including eight wheelchair users, on a Saturday redeye flight from Denver to Miami, then Miami to Grand Cayman before reaching our destination of Cayman Brac. Our 15-hour journey included 3 airplanes and 12 physical transfers in/out of my power wheelchair. No easy physical feat, as each transfer required 3 to 4 transfer assistants. An avid traveler, I was ready for the trip – all-knowing the assured exhaustion after an overnight, sleepless flight. Nevertheless, our group was in great spirits and excited for the adventure of a lifetime to descend into the turquoise Caribbean blue ocean.

Upon arrival, we embraced the balmy, Caribbean humid heat as if diving into a pool of warm liquid butter, quite different from the dry Denver air. Cayman Brac is a tiny island in the middle of a vast Caribbean ocean, 7 x 1 mile, specifically equipped for scuba dive aficionados. We stayed at the Divers Reef/Cayman Brac Hotel – an auspicious two-story hotel with just enough comfort to feel like a home away from home, all-inclusive with wonderful food and fair. The pool was beautiful, right on the ocean with waves crashing on the reef in the distance, and the staff was incredibly accommodating and friendly wanting to hear our dive adventures at every meal. The dive operation was seamless – run by various 20/30-year-old locals who bring joy to vacationing divers about an ocean they know all too well and we knew little about.

My daily process for five days of diving was long, involved and technical. Three-hour preparation mornings started in the darkness at 5 AM with my amazing and dedicated caregiver Debie including full-body range of motion and massage so as to squeeze my paralyzed limbs into my dive suit and climbing harness. Hurrying to "go time" each morning at 8 AM, I was quickly slung into my manual chair, dive suit and all, raced down to the boat dock and was lifted on board by 5 to 6 strong helpers over the waters edge. After a group cheer and clap, the boat sped away, we held on for dear life as the waves were rough most mornings throwing our speeding dive boat to and fro. We arrived to a pristine dive location where the fish and sea creatures awaited our entry. The water was beautiful – turquoise and clear as sea glass.

Safety being paramount, I had 3 to 4 lifters safely and effectively pluck me out of my manual chair, softly placing me on a gel pad at the end of the boat counting "1… 2… 3" throwing me face forward with all of my gear on into the ocean where my two dive buddies awaited in the water. It was a process, and we learned together as a team. I did this for five days, a total of 10 dives in all even including a night dive into a dark black ocean where the night creatures were vastly different than the day.

My dive buddies Tom and Kim are very experienced divers trained for handicap specific accommodations. Tom, my primary point of contact, was in charge of nonverbally communicating only via eye and facial observation. We had no microphones in our masks and so our face-to-face communication had to be intuitive, fluid and trustworthy. He was ultimately responsible for clearing my ear pressure by squeezing my nostrils together so that I could blow and clear my ear pressure as we descended foot by foot. He also watched my dive mask earnestly because if it flooded with water, I would ultimately be blinded with salty seawater requiring his assistance to clear. Kim, behind me or to the side, assisted in forward propulsion and assured my dangling arms or legs did not drag along the reef floor. My dive buddy team was my lifeline – literally – and we worked together beautifully.

Whether it was observing the ever rare mating octopi, or a roly-poly sea cucumber, a myriad of tropical fish or the brown grouper that swam by your side wanting a stroke from your hand– like a little puppy wanting a belly scratch – the diving was spectacular and did not disappoint. Further, I had Tom and Kim's confidence in overcoming a diving milestone as we successfully embraced the ocean at night, under a blanket of beautiful, twinkling stars and a crescent moon. It was a beautiful sight that I will never forget.

The gratitude and graciousness that I have for those that assisted me on the boat, at the resort, in the water, traveling and just overall being part of a week that I spent diving in the Caribbean – I simply cannot thank enough. I could go on for hours– but I wanted to share a small birdseye view of my week diving once again – as a quadriplegic – in the great big ocean. Challenge yourself and go, don't be afraid – dive into the ocean and forget about the rest of the world for a little while. If I can do it, you can do it.

Anything is possible…

Keep on keeping on,

EB Forst