A group of British and American Iraq war veterans are in
Cayman taking part in a unique diving rehabilitation programme that doctors are
finding beneficial to people with severe injuries.
The eight men are taking part in a programme known as
Deptherapy, which was pioneered by Scottish diver Fraser Bathgate. The scuba
diving programme is designed to help wounded soldiers rehabilitate after their
“What we have discovered is that a lot of them benefit
from diving, so much so that we have got doctors from the National Naval
Medical Centre in Washington, DC, interested in what we’re doing,” Mr. Bathgate
Those doctors want to
develop research questionnaires “to see how we are achieving some of the
results that we are achieving,” he said.
“We are having amazing results with the guys suffering
from traumatic brain injuries from when they’ve gotten blown up,” he said.
“They’re seeing increased memory retention and their communication and
cognitive skills all increase.”
There have also been some marked improvements in the
physical mobility of injured troops.
Mr. Bathgate cited the case of 21-year-old British Royal
Marine Dominic Lovett, a quadriplegic with only minimal movement in his right
hand, who was taught to scuba dive and after 10 days, using a thruster, or
propulsion device, was able to swim underwater by himself.
“There was a drastic difference within just a week. He
made more progress in a week of diving than he had in 18 months of
rehabilitation,” Mr. Bathgate said. “What we’re seeing throughout this
programme is progress at a faster rate for some reason. We don’t know why.”
Since they arrived last week, the divers have been doing
two dives a day at some of Cayman’s acclaimed diving sites. Most are due to
leave on Tuesday, 3 August. This is the first time the programme, which usually
takes place in Key Largo, Florida, has been brought to Cayman.
The divers are using tanks of Nitrox, a mix of oxygen and
nitrogen, and propulsion vehicles called Pegasus Thrusters, that are attached
to the back of their tanks and enable them to move easily through the water.
The thrusters, invented by Dean Vitale, helps divers with even extremely
limited movement to manoeuvre through the water and improves their buoyancy and
Rory Douglas Mackenzie, a British Army lance corporal who
lost his right leg in a bomb blast in Basra, said: “My first dive was
horrendous. My weights were all wrong, I was everywhere. On the next dive, I
had the thruster and it was brilliant,” adding that his buoyancy problems were
immediately solved using it.
The thruster weighs about 5 pounds, meaning divers can use
fewer weights when they go underwater.
The divers have also found that diving has the added
benefit of bringing to the skin’s surface shrapnel that was embedded too deeply
in the flesh to surgically remove because it was near arteries or vital organs.
Mr. Mackenzie pointed to a scar on his leg where he said he could feel a piece
of shrapnel coming closer to the surface. “I pulled some shrapnel out before,”
Another diver, Jared Kreiser, a corporal in the US Marine
Corps who was struck by shrapnel from an explosive outside Baghdad, has
undergone 29 operations to reconstruct his jaw.
He said that using a hyperbaric chamber – also known as a
decompression chamber – meant that
infections he had developed after earlier surgeries did not reappear in later
“It supersaturates the tissues with oxygen. I did 10
treatments in the hyperbaric chamber for two and a half hours a day,” he said,
adding that the treatments also led to sutured surgical wounds healing at an
“If I’d had the hyperbaric treatment in the first seven
surgeries, I probably would not have had the infections I got,” he said.
Hyperbaric treatments can be costly, but the wounded
soldiers said that considering the costs of surgeries, rehabilitation and
treating infections that amputees are prone to, as well as the fact that such
treatments could help a soldier recover and return to active duty, the treatments
are well worth the cost and should be more widely available.
Mr. Bathgate said he chose the Cayman Islands to hold the
first Deptherapy programme outside the US not only because of its warm waters
and its “spectacular and accessible diving”, but also because of his good
relationship with the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism.
“Also, the Americans have been hosting the British in this
programme for a few years now, so it’s almost like the British now are hosting
the Americans. In the UK, we don’t have the weather or the water [for diving].
Here we do,” he said.
The group had scheduled the trip to coincide with the
original date for the sinking of the USS Kittiwake, a 251-foot military vessel
that was due to be sunk off Seven Mile Beach last week. The Cayman Islands
Tourism Association announced in early July that the sinking would be
Mr. Bathgate, who is president and founder of Disabled
Divers International, developed Deptherapy following his own experience in
learning to dive and loving it after he became a paraplegic following a
climbing accident in 1986 at age 23. He has devised his own swimming technique
that combines hip rotation with the use of his arms for underwater propulsion.
“I was very fortunate to get a chance to [learn to dive]
in Dubai. I just loved it, to the point where I wanted to see how far I could
push it. Fortunately for me, there were people who wanted to see how far it
could be pushed as well,” he said.
After becoming a qualified scuba diver and coach, he
became the world’s first paraplegic PADI instructor, and joined the
International Association of Handicapped Divers, which provides instructors,
dive buddies and training programmes for people with serious physical
Asked how diving compares to climbing, he replied: “It’s
the same thing really, with less cold and more to see.”
“The great thing about diving is you get a freedom you
don’t have on land. It’s a 360-degree environment. You have a chance to visit
an inner space area that very few people get to visit,” he said.
Mr. Bathgate said that he
and the divers had received a “really warm welcome” in Cayman and he thanked
dive operators at Sunset Divers, Red Sail and DiveTech, “who have been so
generous with their time, services, boats and equipment”.