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Breathing Under Water Again

June 07, 2016

Guest Blog: Elizabeth "EB" Forst

Anything is possible if you put your mind to it. Even in the throes of living a life of complete quadriplegia, I have come to realize that if you are dedicated and determined to live a desired life, you can attain this life with enough support from others. With this being said, I have successfully reached a major milestone after one and a half years of paralysis. For the first time since my injury, I will descend into the ocean and dive Cozumel Mexico with the assistance and safeguard of dedicated volunteers from the therapeutic recreation department at Craig Hospital and A1 scuba in Littleton Colorado. A daunting task, especially without the use of my arms or legs, I am 100% dependent on my Craig appointed dive buddies Stacie Aden and Krista Picco to help me perform dive skills essential for safety underwater such as clearing my mask, neutral buoyancy, and de–pressurizing the ear canal. We have created innovative strategies of communication underwater mainly with eye movements and a nod of the head – Stacie will be directly in front of me watching me closely helping to depressurize my ears by squeezing my nose as I simultaneously blow. This takes patience, practice and a lot of trust. If there is anything wrong, which could be a number of things, Stacie and I need to be able to communicate nonverbally underwater as to what the problem is and ameliorate the situation or we must ascend immediately which as any diver knows must be taken slowly. Krista is behind me making sure that I am positioned upright and that my oxygen gauges are within normal limits, obviously a life or death issue. She communicates with Stacie, Stacie communicates with me and I communicate directly with Stacie; we have established a three-way circuit of organization underwater. Problems that may arise could be the inability to clear my ears, water escaping into the mask, nausea, hyperventilation, hypothermia, low air or autonomic dysreflexia, which any quadriplegic understands the magnitude of such a situation. The days of giving the A-OK sign with my own fingers and swimming right along independently are clearly over. Where there is a will there is a way and I have learned to adapt to my new lifestyle of paralysis taking on this new adventure as a challenge to regain one of my very dear passions in life – diving.

Watch EB's Story

My first dive was almost 20 years ago in Cairns, Australia, on a study abroad trip in college visiting the Great Barrier Reef on an unassuming day in which I randomly wandered into a dive shop needing an activity for the day. As a backpacker and college student, I had very little money to spend on recreational activities but was encouraged by the dive shop operator this would change my life, and she was right. The following day, I witnessed a giant underwater Disneyland with fish as big as a small bus – I was hooked. Swimming with a shark or a stingray underwater, an encounter I was terrified of since my childhood in Hawaii, no longer seemed scary but a mere excitement. Future traveling adventures would incorporate diving internationally as I wanted to see more, travel more and dive more. It wasn't long after college in which I was visiting the Virgin Islands where I became a certified diver, diving all over the British and US Virgin Islands. Since then I have dove all over the world including Fiji, Mexico, Thailand, and the Hawaiian Islands where I night dove with the giant manta rays measuring 20 feet tip–to– tip wingspan. A rare sight!

I had always wanted to continue my certification process and expand my diving career to an advanced certification continuing to bring me to other parts of the world. With this in mind, I was in Bali and Thailand in 2014 acquiring my yoga training and so therefore it seemed the appropriate time to take advantage of such a beautiful international dive location. Therefore, just a mere two weeks prior to my spinal cord injury in August 2014, I was in Koh Tao, Thailand acquiring my advanced diver certification – no easy feat. The training entailed performing various technical, advanced dives – a complicated wreck dive on an abandoned World War II submarine sunken on the ocean floor, a procedural night dive, a deep ocean dive and a complicated navigation dive using coordinates underwater. It was a thrilling experience and I already had my sights set on future dive locations and other certifications – diving is like traveling, similar to wanting a passport stamp from individual countries, a diver yearns to boast about their tribulations of dive locations around the world. Little did I know that my life was about to change in the most egregious way.

A mere two weeks later, a freak accident diving into a swimming pool stateside resulted in my imploded C4/C5 cervical spine – my budding diving career I thought was certainly over. To date, I have yet to recover any mobility or sensation below my mid chest and I rely on sip and puff air operated technology to control my power wheelchair. Luckily, I am fortunate to have maintained good breath control even with the high-level C fracture which I attribute to my previous lifetime as an active Yogi and competitive swimmer/diver in which breath work was paramount. Yet with no arm or leg function, how can one ever dive again? Enter into my story Carol Huserik, Craig Hospital's Therapeutic Recreation supervisor extraordinaire. As soon as Carol heard of my extensive diving background, she immediately revealed the real opportunity to get back into the water even with full quadriplegia. Therefore it seemed apropos that my first outing with Craig Hospital as an inpatient, a required outing before discharge from the hospital, was to the Denver aquarium. As I sat in my power wheelchair despondently watching the sharks and gigantic fish swimming amongst one another, I wondered what my life had come to and how it changed so drastically with the blink of an eye. Just then, Carol approached me and stated that one day, hell or high water, she would get me back in the water diving – a reality I pooh-poohed thinking surely this lady was crazy. Little did I know that a little over a year later, with Carol and others' encouragement from Craig, this reality would come true.

I must have faith that anything can be done even when it seems like challenges can be so great. I will continue to keep living the way I lived before which was full of adventure and never saying never. Anything can be done if you just put your mind to it.

Keep on keeping on…

Elizabeth/EB Forst

Watch EB's first decent into the water in Cozumel, Mexico!