IAHD Heroes

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