Two years into her career as an occupational therapist, Shawn Johnson attended a Skills for Life meeting that changed her life, and she has been changing others ever since. The meeting was sponsored by a prosthetics manufacturer and hosted a doctor and occupational therapist. The focus; people who have lost both hands or arms.
“I saw what was possible, and that those who were newly injured learning from those who have been living without limbs for some time was so impactful, that face-to-face meeting accomplished more than any therapist, any article, any video could do,” Johnson said. “This is not something many people in the medical profession specialize in, it’s a small world.”
Johnson wanted to expand that world and started helping organize the next Skills for Life meeting, an event that only happens once every three years and creates that face-to-face interaction so important to healing, acceptance, and independence; and this year she included adaptive scuba diving.
“We were thrilled that Shawn reached out to us, and we were able to offer a try dive event for people attending the workshop,” said John Oldmixon, an adaptive dive instructor with the Dive Pirates Foundation. “It’s incredible to work with like-minded organizations who see what people are capable of doing, and those that chose to give it a try did great! Other than getting everyone kitted up, I was encouraged by how little we needed to do to assist the students. Their “can-do” attitude is so in keeping with the Dive Pirates that I felt we were getting ready to step off the boats in the Caribbean.”
“The most difficult thing to do is to help get wetsuits and booties on, however it is not any different than what I experience myself trying to get those dang wetsuits on!” Joked Gillian Tilbury, a Dive Pirates board member, and adaptive dive buddy. “It is not a challenge we have not encountered in the past with other recipients, it is easy to customize wetsuits to help with the donning and doffing process.”
For Jason Koger and Samoana “Sam” Matagi, the wetsuits were a bit daunting, so of course, they made the effort a challenge, one leaving his prosthetics on, the other off, to see which could get suited up the easiest. Both men suffered an electric shock that took both of their arms. Sam was referred to Jason as a mentor, as he has been living as a double amputee for 11 years now, and the two continue to meet at the Skills for Life meetings and collaborate.
“It helped me out a bit too (being a mentor) because I felt like I had a purpose, and it was fun to do this try diving with Sam, it was relaxing, fun to try something different, it makes you feel like there is nothing you can’t do, there are still things out there, groups out there that can help you figure it out, make activities adaptive, it means a lot when people take the time to work with you,” Koger said.
“This was about showing those with physical disabilities, that they had “the ability,” to overcome a challenge that many able-bodied people fear and won’t even try,” continued D’Artagnan Bebel, Dive Pirates board member, and adaptive dive buddy. “Mask clearing, regulator retrieval, and purging, BCD inflation, and deflation, monumental tasks for some people who have hands, let alone no arms or hands. It’s all about problem-solving.”
Try Dive was just one of the many activities offered at the Skills for Life workshop, and Johnson hopes enough sponsors and interest will pull together for more. “My brain says it’s too hard, too many moving parts, logistics, my heart says this is such a life-changing opportunity to be in a room of people who get it, feel normal, a chance to connect, I hope it continues.”
Skills for Life is a non-profit organization dedicated to bilateral upper-limb loss. Its mission is to empower and educate persons missing both arms to pursue fulfilled and independent lives. Find out more at enhancingskillsforlife.org.
The Dive Pirates Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing scuba diving to persons with disabilities and joining them with the mainstream of divers. Its vision is to create a community of adaptive divers that will dive and travel in the mainstream world of scuba diving through education and overcoming obstacles. For more information about the Foundation go to divepirates.org.