By Michael L. McCauley
Licensed Certified Orthotist and Board Eligible Prosthetist
St. Petersburg College O&P Class of 2011
Recently I had the opportunity through the St. Petersburg College Orthotics & Prosthetics program and the Combat Wounded Veterans Challenge (CWVC) to go on an expedition to the Florida Keys and conduct a case study on veterans and their prosthetic swim legs. Who would pass that up?!
I spent a week there diving, taking video and collecting data on each of these amazing men. The week was one of the greatest things I have ever experienced. To sum up the trip, I feel like I could write hundreds of pages but just to give you a glimpse, here is a summary of just one day.
It’s Sunday morning. Forty to fifty people stand around in the sun and around the pool. Some are media there for a news story. Amputees set up their scuba equipment. Videographers set up some cameras. The EMT’s get their machines ready. Some are there for no other reason but to watch.
And then there is me: young and very nervous, about to conduct my first field case study. Am I at this level? I don’t know.
What questions are they going to ask me? Is this going to run as smoothly as it does in my head? Are they going to listen? Am I going to say the right things? Hundreds of questions and doubts pulsate through my brain.
Regardless of how I feel at this exact little moment, it is about to change. I cruise with my eyes along the pool and see the wounded veterans setting up their equipment and the subtle differences they do in the process that prove that they have adapted.
These guys have had their legs and arms taken away while they were giving our country their best and yet their drive is unchanged. The inspiration hits me right in the chest and I think to myself: “Can I not adapt to this moment, too?”
Of course I can.
So with a long deep breath, I feel prepared and ready. Actually, not only am I prepared, but I am pumped and I need to do this. Not for me. Not for my school. Not for an academic paper I’m going to write.
I need to do this so these guys and others like them can have better lives. I can feel the challenge standing in front of me with boxing gloves on. Let’s do this!
The challenge and inspiration continue through the morning as I swim beside these guys in the pool with and without their prosthetics on. Look at them go! Never once did I hear ANY of them complain. Really? I think to myself…I am exhausted…and this guy just did 50 meters with no legs.
If I did not have my regulator in my mouth, my jaw would be dropped. These guys are outstanding and we breeze through the trials we need to conduct with no quirks. The study at the pool concludes and BOOM! We have data that has never been gathered before!
I gather information on these guys as they dive in three different planes of view, their starting and finishing heart rates, blood pressure, swim techniques, their times, speed, and soon I will have their efficiency. All with and without their prosthetics. Although it takes three long hours and I am sunburned, I could not ask for a more smooth and productive day for my case study.
As I sit on the bench with an imaginary hand patting me on the back, I overhear discussions of a group of people going to dive the Vandenberg, a 522-foot World War II transport ship that was intentionally sunk off the coast of the Keys several years ago. It is a sought-out dive for many thrill-seeking divers all over the world.
Let me set this scene for you. I am again surrounded by men and women with years and years of not just diving but technical diving skills. They tower over the “recreational diver”. Most of them do not even know how many dives they have been on because they stopped counting.
Chris Corbin, a bilateral transtibial amputee and an Army Special Forces Sgt. 1st Class, gives his best guess of “somewhere between 900-1000”. And again, there is me — a monster of a diver with 4 total dives. None of which were in salt water. I know what you’re thinking and please just keep it to yourself. So, I am approached and asked if I would like to go. Feeling the same pump I felt earlier through my chest, I say, “Yes.”
We gather our equipment and head to the boats. Greg Miller, a dive instructor in Key West, starts our dive briefing and I begin feeling unprepared. I love diving and I love the water but I have never been to this depth. I have never dived in saltwater, and I have certainly never dived a shipwreck. The boats head out fast and the wind is loud which silences most conversation. All you are left with is yourself. The pondering and imagination steers in all directions.
Should I let Greg know that I am just going to stay on the boat?
We get to the site off Looe Key and you can envision the ship below you but the size and magnitude is only a guess. Above, the water looks just like it does anywhere else.
We get in the water and as we head over to the descent line, I think, “I have seen this on the Discovery Channel.”
Greg gives the go to head down and we form a single file line to grab the rope. Greg leads with Chris following, then myself followed by Will Wilson, a transtibial amputee and Navy Master Chief, and Roland Vaughn, an Army Ranger who suffered a traumatic brain injury. I am looking down this descent line with maybe 15 feet of visibility. It is almost as if it never ends. There is no ship to be seen and the rope just vanishes into the bluish green water.
As we continue down, I am constantly talking to myself and saying, “I can do this.” I try to concentrate on Chris and his prosthetic legs as he maneuvers down the line, studying what could be better or what could make this easier for him. The boat above is no longer visible.
And then there it was…the Vandenberg. I begin seeing the ship’s layout, the sheer size, and all the compartments. Wow, am I really doing this?
We began to penetrate into the ship, heading down an elevator shaft. Okay mark that off the list; I have now penetrated a shipwreck. We head through what looks like an office and then into a hallway that is darn near pitch black.
The entire time, my breathing is slow and controlled. At this moment, I have no worries in the world. I have no school loans, no credit card debt, no job, and no struggles at all. It is just me, the water, and this amazing ship. This is one of the coolest things I have ever done.
We ascend through the first deck up through a satellite dish and we sit there gazing at the ship’s beauty. We begin to pose for a picture with our CWVC banner as I saw Greg swimming fast toward Chris. Chris was holding his gauge, eyes huge. At 92 feet down, he has had an equipment malfunction. All his air is gone.
Greg acts as the dive master he is and begins to share air just as I had learned three weeks ago in my certification class. We begin our slow ascent knowing that Chris is okay and that everything is under control. I take advantage of the safety stops built into our dive plan to stare like a kid at the ship below me.
I feel I accomplished.
This was my first ocean dive, my fifth dive ever, and it’s the Vandenberg at 100 feet! I was challenged twice today and I was inspired more than I can count. I say it all the time but sometimes it means more than usual. It was a good day!
See photos from the trip on the college’s Facebook page.
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