Karen Swisher’s Story

Born (as a diver) Again!  Hallelujah!

On June 13, 2006 my entire life came to sudden halt. While working as an emergency medical technician in eastern Pennsylvania, my partner and I were returning to our station from an ambulance transport when a drunk driver pulled into the path of our ambulance. We collided near the right front panel of the other vehicle, causing us to deflect into a telephone pole head on. The impact with the telephone pole pinned me inside of the ambulance.

For several hours I was unconscious and awoke to find I was completely paralyzed from the neck down. This paralysis lasted for a few days. The doctors told me that there was a strong possibility that I might never be able to walk again. Fortunately for me, this was not the case and a couple of weeks later, I walked out of the hospital on my own free will. I had to use a walker and cane however, for several months. Thankfully today I am walking completely on my own, though a bit slower than I used to.

I have been involved in the field of emergency services since February 1978, both as a volunteer and paid emergency medical technician. Over the span of these thirty-two years I have been involved in many emergency service and non-emergency service related training courses including, but not limited to: wild land fire fighting, infectious control, (of which I am now an instructor), pump operations and fire police, among many others. Beyond my involvement in the fire and EMS side of the emergency services I have been involved with different forms of law enforcement for over 26 years, where I have served as a fire police officer, security officer and auxiliary police officer.

In 1997 I certified as an Open Water Diver, and continued my training through Advanced Open Water Diver, and then on to Search and Recovery Diver. Sadly, all of these activities came to a screeching halt as a result of the life altering injuries I suffered in 2006.

Lying in the hospital and unable to move after the accident, I thought my days of doing the things I loved and enjoyed had ended forever. I have had to endure six major surgeries over the last three years and face a possibility of three or four more surgeries to complete the healing and rehabilitation process.

Among my injuries, I had suffered severely pinched and severed nerves in my right arm and neck during the accident. Due to the severity of the injuries I suffered I currently only have 5% of my total strength and coordination in my right arm and hand, as well as weakness throughout my right side. With all of the damage to the nerves, I thought for sure I would not be able to participate in the emergency services or the sport of scuba diving as I once had.

At the end of 2008 a friend of mine told about a way for me to enjoy diving once again. I was not able to understand how, given I’m not able to carry my own gear or put the majority of the gear on myself. I was put in contact with several training agencies that specialize in adaptive scuba programs, amongst them HSA and IAHD-Americas. After a lot of research and discussions with others, I began to feel that there may be hope after all! I started posting on ScubaBoard, where sharing my experiences and desires to dive again did not go unnoticed, and many have contributed information, postings on my thread, and private messages that help me in my search to find the right organization to work with. One of the names that kept surfacing was Indian Valley Scuba, and their involvement with the International Association for Handicapped Divers for the Americas (www.iahd-americas.org). I did some more research, talked to others who had worked with IVS and finally made my decision to attempt diving once again, starting with a telephone call to Indian Valley Scuba.

From the onset I knew I had made the right call. I spoke to Dave Valaika, who not only is a PADI Course Director and the owner of Indian Valley Scuba, but also is the Executive Director of IAHD- Americas. We chatted extensively, talking about my injuries, my goals, and what I felt were my limitations regarding diving once again. More importantly, we talked about how IAHD-Americas and the staff at IVS could work with me to get me back into diving again! Not once during my conversations did Mr. Valaika ever mention limitations, compromise or any other terms that suggested I would not be a “real diver” once again.

I made arrangements to visit the Indian Valley Scuba Dive Center, which was about 2 1⁄2 hours south of me in Harleysville, PA. I continued to have doubt that I would be able to dive until the moment I arrived at Indian Valley Scuba. From the minute I walked in the door and met the store manager, Beverly, everyone there made me feel welcome and relaxed. It has been almost five years since I have been able to scuba dive and you can imagine how the excitement and anticipation was building up inside me.

First I sat and talked with Dave, and we got to know each other a bit better. He introduced me to Richie Kessler, on of IVS’s IAHD- Americas trained professionals and a PADI instructor. Richie spent almost three hours with me, refreshing my dive knowledge and academics, reviewing gear setups and configurations, and really bringing me back up to speed on so much that I had either forgotten since my incident, or frankly, never learned in my orginal diver training.

Man was he ever thorough, and I loved it! After that, I headed across the street to the pool, where IAHD-Americas professional and PADI dive instructor Barb White met me for my in-water session. IVS had provided all the gear I would need, at no cost to me at all! Barb and I immediately bonded, and it turns out she is a professional physical therapist, so we had much in common to chat about! She worked with me as I assembled my own gear, checked performance, and then eased it into the pool. They had nice wide stairs which made entering the water a breeze, and the pool is a balmy 85 degrees! Once in the water, I slipped into my BCD for the first time in almost four years! I felt like someone who learned to ride a bike as a child; I really hadn’t forgetten, I just needed the means to re-visit this most wonderful part of my life! It was so wonderful to be in scuba gear and in the water again. I felt like part of my life that had been taken away in the accident was given back to me. Barb and I spent over 2 hours in the pool, reviewing skills, working on my buoyancy, playing games, and just totally immersed (pun intended) in the joy of it all. Once we were done, I was already talking about my next visit and planning my diving this coming season with IVS at Dutch Springs! The experience, both in the classroom and pool, gave me the confidence in myself to confidently say ‘I am a diver again”.

And as an added benefit, the experience I had at Indian Valley Scuba Center has given me the confidence and motivation to pursue other avenues of my life that, like scuba diving, I felt were forever closed. I have recently regained my emergency medical technician status and now feel that I can return to the full life I had before the accident.

I would like to thank everyone who has helped me to this point, including Dave Valaika, Rich Kessler, Barb White and Bev Loggins from Indian Valley Scuba. Your patience and kindness were so greatly appreciated. Thank you!

Kit McElwee’s Story

Some say diving is on everybody’s “bucket list”; it is one of those things people say they have always wanted to do but they just don’t get around to it. But Kit McElwee is not like everybody. That’s why her amazing quest to dive caught the attention of NBC10 sports reporter Jade McCarthy. Kit’s story was filmed for the Philadelphia channel 10 feature “Game Changers” for the Dec. 8th 11pm broadcast.

“When I was at my lowest point…I decided to take up diving” said the 28 year old.

A little known disease, hystiocytosis, began wreaking havoc in Kit’s bones, joints, skull, and heart between the spring and summer of 2007. The tumor producing condition banished her to a wheelchair and ultimately crushed her optic nerve, stealing her sight.

As she struggled to hold on to her life and hope, her brother, a certified diver and
lifeguard reminded her of a promise. He had previously been to Epcot and promised his sister that the next time she would dive the aquarium there with him. During the Game Changers interview, Mark McElwee, Jr proudly admitted: “This is all my fault.”

That promise gave Kit the motivation she needed to battle her disease. In time her
doctors at the University of Pennsylvania found some treatments that helped. Certainly she has had far more operations, hospitalizations, medications, and shots than any twenty-something ever should. But, as her mother Christine explained: “She can walk through the mall now.”

It was Christine who first learned of Indian Valley Scuba’s connection to IAHD and
enrolled Kit in the Adaptive Scuba program. Kit (the daughter of a swim coach and once competitive diver) trained fearlessly. IAHD-certified instructor Butch Loggins describes Kit as “the best student you could ask for.” And so it was that on her sister Cassie’s birthday in late October, Kit and her family and the IVS crew headed up to Dutch Springs for her check out dives.

Even watching Kit gear up is an impressive sight. But it doesn’t begin to compare to the adapted communication needed for Kit to be safe and informed under water. At Dutch that day, underwater photographer Randy Rudd asked if Kit would mind if he photographed her. The answer shows not just how much Kit has been through but also what strength and determination she reflects:

She replied: “I’ve had my head operated on and my chest opened up. I almost died twice last year. Do you think a camera can bother me?”

Just after filming the segment for Game Changers the McElwee’s were heading off on vacation—to Epcot. The dream they clung to in their darkest days about to be realized.

Their future is still uncertain. But there is no doubt that life has made Kit McElwee a
fighter and scuba has put a trainer in her corner and a community of buddies on her side.

It is probably not the way Butch Loggins imagined when his son’s war stories from Iraq prompted him to get his IAHD certification. Maybe that just goes to show that the fight for freedom and definition of a hero is broader than one might think.

Lauren’s Story

Lauren ‘O’ in the land of the Manatees
Indian Valley Scuba & IAHD-Americas – perfect together!

2011 started off with a very, very special trip south to visit the manatees and explore the freshwater springs of North Central Florida. Why so special, you ask? We come here every year to play with the second largest mammals found in the ocean and root around in the underground caverns and caves that cover this region. I’ll tell you why this years trip is one of the most special ever – because we are celebrating Lauren Ostrowski’s checkout dives this weekend.

Hmmmm, you are thinking……it seems IVS is doing that just about every weekend of the year someplace! True, true, we do so love to dive and introduce others to this wonderful sport, but our student this weekend is extra special, and I think you’ll feel the same way as I share her story with our readers.

Lauren Ostrowski and her family have been part of our latest International Association of Handicapped Divers (IAHD-Americas) project here at IVS for the past 16 months. Lauren is 28 years old, and has spastic, quadriplegic cerebral palsy, a condition that affects the way her brain sends signals to control her muscles. It affects how she moves her entire body and all of her muscles are tight, making her body stiff and her limbs nearly set in position. Her effective movement is limited to her right hand, and her left for some typing, as well as her neck & head, qualifying her for the title quadriplegic, or quad for short, the term used for those with limited or no usage of all four appendages. She uses a motorized wheelchair for mobility and there’s a lot more to her than what you see at first glance. She has a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. Edinboro is a school located outside of Erie, PA, with about 9,000 students in attendance. What makes this school differ from others, though, is that Edinboro receives state funding to provide personal care to those students that need help with activities of daily living, such as getting dressed, eating and more. There are usually about 60 students enrolled that are in need of some kind of help. Edinboro also provides people to assist with meals and writing answers to exams. Lauren says Edinboro was really a springboard for a lot of what she does now and plans to do in the future. Lauren has a full-time job as an outpatient psychotherapist, is a National Certified Counselor, and is working on becoming a Licensed Professional Counselor.

Her life has not been an easy one. The effects of this birth defect, which approx 10,000 babies are born with annually in the United States alone, are varied and the symptons range from mild to severe, often accompanied with some form of mental retardation. While Lauren suffers from the physical attributes of this disorder, her mind is as sharp as a tack and her mental process clear and bright, as evidenced by her attainment of her masters degree noted above. From the physical side though, life has been a challenge, with major spinal surgery at age 14 to correct severe scoliosis, which her twisting her in a twisted position towards her left side. Failure to address this would eventually lead to grave difficulty in breathing as her lungs compressed against her other organs. In the surgical process, which included the insertion of a pair of rods and a pound or two of stainless wire into her spine, she ended up growing 4 inches in height, and on a side note, can now carry firearms without detection through any TSA location! She attended Lower Pottsgrove Elementary, enrolled in regular education since third grade, in spite of her need to be fed and assisted by others. She is truly a trooper, and graduated from Pottsgrove High in 2000, and was accepted in Edinboro with classes starting in the fall. Any one of these challenges might be more than the average person could deal with, but does any of this keep Lauren down? Not a chance!!

Read the rest of the story on Dave’s blog

Live Life No Limits

We are excited to announce that IAHD-Americas is now a part of Live Life No Limits (livelifenolimits.org). In the spirit of adventure, Live Life No Limits focuses on providing adaptive sport and travel opportunities beyond scuba diving to individuals who seek an Adaptive Adventure Lifestyle.

Platinum Pro 5000 for Dave

David Valaika, Director of IAHD-Americas, receives the Platinum Pro 5000 Award for his 10,000+ dives and his leading edge work with IAHD-Americas!

Dave’s reaction: “I am truly humbled by the honor of being awarded the Dive Industry’s Platinum Pro Award at the DEMA Show in recognition of the work we have done with IAHD-Americas and LiveLifeNoLimits.org.” Doug McNeese, Chairman of Scuba Schools International, presented the award. Thank you everyone for the nomination and support!

IAHD-Americas heads to Las Vegas

Nov 14-17: IAHD-Americas heads to Las Vegas, NV for the DEMA Show. DEMA Show 2012 is the only international trade-only event for the diving, action water sports and travel industries.

IAHD-Americas Makes Adaptive Scuba Viable for Dive Centers & Resorts

Plenty of opportunities for specialized training for dive professionals.

The International Association for Handicapped Divers (IAHD-Americas) is offering dive centers, independent instructors and resort operators the training, support and structure they need to make adaptive scuba a viable and on-going part of their business rather than a sporadic charitable cause. IAHD-Americas leverages the strength and experience of its parent organization, IAHD International, which has been serving handicapped divers, companions, instructors, and affiliates successfully since 1991. Now, IAHD-Americas is bringing their technical and business acumen to our region full force.

While there are other agencies that promote adaptive scuba programs, one important distinction in the IAHD-Americas adaptive scuba business model is the fact that the handicapped divers are trained for free. This raises the profile and the addressable market for IAHD dive centers, operators, resorts, and instructors. The approach works because the IAHD diver’s interests spread throughout their support circle to dive partners and enthusiasts who’ll pursue scuba as an extension of the handicapped person. And this extensive group represents an untapped market segment that is virtually unreachable to dive centers that fail to embrace and promote diving to the special needs community.

IAHD partners receive mentoring and instruction in applying their diving and business skills to the huge adaptive sports arena. More than 21 million Americans suffer from physical disabilities today, that number easily doubles when combined with mental and emotional challenges throughout the Americas territory. By expertly expanding their traditional approaches to the disabled sports environment, IAHD partners overcome competitive and branding limitations while improving the opportunities for these incredibly deserving people.

Another important factor to consider is that IAHD-Americas actively promotes its education and training programs, as well as the growing family of IAHD-certified dive centers, instructors, resorts and partners both nationally through an active trade show schedule, media exposure and advertising, an aggressively-branded internet presence and individually by referring leads and inquiries to local IAHD affiliates. And perhaps most importantly, IAHD-Americas does not train divers; rather, we are here to provide the tools and training for instructors, dive centers and resorts, who will provide their clients with the actual training and dive experiences, and ultimately reap the rewards of their efforts.

This is a truly win-win situation for the public and the dive industry which has attracted premier IAHD-Americas’ Supporting Partners: Learning Through Travel, Deep Blue Adventures and ScubaGearPlus, with new sponsors enrolling every month.

Scuba Diving Improves Function of Body & Mind

Johns Hopkins researchers find ‘dramatic’ results in small preliminary study

Newswise – A small group of veterans with spinal cord injuries who underwent a four-day scuba- diving certification saw significant improvement in muscle movement, increased sensitivity to light touch and pinprick on the legs, and large reductions in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, according to Johns Hopkins researchers.

The researchers, while calling the advances made over the course of a few days “dramatic,” caution that the results are preliminary, the study size small and the duration of the benefits are unknown. Still, they say, the findings suggest there may be a pathway for restoring neurological and psychological function in paraplegics that has been overlooked thus far.

“There is no treatment for people with chronic spinal cord injury and many believe once you’ve lost the communication between the brain and the extremities, there is nothing you can do to restore lost function,” says Adam Kaplin, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral services at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “What we saw in the water strongly suggests there is some scuba-facilitated restoration of neurological and psychological function in paraplegics. It’s very provocative.”

Kaplin, who will present the findings at the Paralyzed Veterans of America conference on Sept. 17 in Orlando, emphasizes that his team cannot “establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that what we saw is reproducible or durable.” Nor could he explain how the scuba effects may have worked, though he and co-researcher Daniel Becker, M.D., head of Pediatric Restoration Therapy at the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury (ICSCI) at Kennedy Krieger Institute and an assistant professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins, hope to do a larger randomized study to test their hypotheses.

The study was the brainchild of Cody Unser. Unser, now 24, suffered an acute attack of transverse myelitis – a neurologic syndrome caused by inflammation of the spinal cord – that, more than a decade ago, left her paralyzed from the chest down. The progeny of car-racing royalty, Unser told Kaplin that she regained some feeling in her legs when she went scuba diving. Kaplin says he was skeptical at first, but Unser brought him to a scuba training session in Pennsylvania to talk to other wheelchair-dependent people who told him the same thing. He was intrigued.

The Cody Unser First Step Foundation, which is involved in education and research about disability in general and transverse myelitis specifically, offered to sponsor a pilot study to see if there was any credibility to the anecdotal evidence of the paralyzed divers.

Kaplin and Becker collected their data in the Cayman Islands in May during a scuba certification trip for disabled veterans sponsored by Unser’s foundation. There were 10 wheelchair-dependent participants who had suffered a spinal cord injury an average of 15 years earlier and nine healthy “dive buddy” control subjects.

Before the dives, Kaplin and Becker conducted a series of neurological and psychological tests on all 19 subjects. They measured muscle spasticity, motor control and sensitivity to pinprick and light touch, as well as symptoms found in depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, hostility and PTSD. Then the participants underwent scuba certification, which included a series of nine dives over the course of four days. Eight of the 10 paraplegics ultimately completed the dives.

At the end, all 19 participants were reassessed.

“We saw dramatic changes in a matter of days in a number of people with spinal cord injury who went scuba diving,” Becker says. “This is just a pilot study, but to see such a restoration of neurological function and significant improvement in PTSD symptoms over such a short period of time was unprecedented.”

The researchers saw an average 15 percent reduction in muscle spasticity in those disabled veterans who went diving and an average 10 percent increase in sensitivity to light touch and five percent to pinprick. In some individuals the improvement in tone, sensation or motor function was between 20 and 30 percent. The healthy controls experienced noneurologic changes.

The researchers also found an average decrease of 15 percent in obsessive compulsive disorder symptoms in the disabled divers, a similar decrease in signs of depression, and an overall decrease in mental problems using a validated psychological assessment.

Kaplin concedes those improvements may have been influenced by the fact that the subjects were taken on a Caribbean vacation and got to go diving on a beautiful reef. But the most striking psychological impact was seen in PTSD symptoms, which decreased, on average, by 80 percent in those veterans who went diving. Escaping to a tranquil beach setting, Kaplin says, wouldn’t be enough to account for such an apparent escape fromPTSD symptoms.

“They were challenged with something that made them anxious and they mastered it,” Kaplin says. He adds that the regulated breathing needed to make the body buoyant and to control movement in the water may have also helped to relax the veterans and made them better able to control their symptoms.

The researchers say they don’t really know how to explain the effect scuba diving may be having on the bodies of those with spinal cord injuries. Kaplin says it is possible that weightlessness in the water may play a role in improvements found in paraplegic veterans. Deep in the water, divers are buoyant and don’t have to fight gravity, while the water allows for a kind of global resistance training they can’t experience on land. They can also better fill their lungs in the water since their breathing isn’t hindered by sitting in a wheelchair. It is also possible that increased oxygenation of tissues from the pressurized air may have resulted in the improved muscle tone, strength and sensitivity the researchers identified.

The researchers would like to do a follow-up study which would compare results after scuba, snorkeling and time spent in a hyperbaric chamber simulating underwater dives. These may be able to tease out what role may be played by exercise and what role may be played by air pressure.

“Is there something healing happening under there?” Becker asks. “There’s a signal but only by repeating these results and showing significant improvements can we establish that. It’s too early to know for sure.”