The Cayman Islands is at the centre of a pioneering study of the effects of scuba diving on people with disabilities.
The study, approved by the Institutional Review Board, will conduct trials on 10 paralysed veterans to measure the neurological, psychological and pulmonary effects of scuba diving. Aspects of the study include: testing, evaluation, and data gathering to scientifically measure the efficacy of scuba diving as an activity-based therapy that benefits people with disabilities.
The study was inspired by Cody Unser, who became paralysed at age 12 from the chest down due to a rare illness called Transverse Myelitis. Cody’s mother, Shelley, said the family was used to an active lifestyle, whether on personal watercraft or snowmobiles or hanging out at the Indianoplis 500 races with her famous father, driver Al Unser Jr.
“My kids grew up with a lot of adrenaline sports. Her brother got her back in the water and scuba diving saved her life. In 2000 she got her license and in 2002 we started Cody’s Great Scuba Adventures, with the first one down here in Cayman.
“We have built up a veterans’ dive team of instructors who are almost all retired military or [active] military and we coupled with course directors in the Handicapped Scuba Association. If people can’t get their PADI certificate, they can get the HSA.”
Subsequently, the partnership with Paralysed Veterans of America came about as the group is interested in studying the psychological effects of scuba.
The scuba-medical pilot study for disabled veterans was started by medical professionals from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.
“The doctors who are coming have been my daughter’s doctors for 10 years and study rare neurological conditions, so they know a lot about paralysis as well. They got the approval to come down here and with our partners from the Paralysed Veterans of America picked 10 guys from various wars, including Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We normally train everybody ahead of time but because of time and study parameters, we are doing it all in one location so everyone can observe. A lot of these guys are doing it for the first time. We are on boats with Red Sail for three days. They are taking us to Stingray City, and we hope to end with all 10 certified on the USS Kittiwake as their final dive.”
Researchers, brain mappers, neuro-psychiatrists and other specialists have come down, said former Navy SEAL Al Kovak, vice president of Paralysed Veterans of America.
“The researchers are looking at the psychological and neurological effects of scuba. I don’t know what the outcomes will be, but as far as the psychological [aspects are concerned], I know it is going to be successful. Any kind of sport, scuba or recreational thing is always going to have good effects.
“You don’t want to sit around the house watching TV all the time. Guys who have traumatic injuries like these are often susceptible to depression, but doing sports like these really gets the endorphins flowing and makes you feel good when you’re done,” he said.
Not that it was difficult to convince people to become involved with the study, conceded Mr. Kovac.
“We handpicked 10 vets and I wanted to make sure these were the guys with the right background to do something like this. When I tell these guys, ‘Do you want to go to Cayman to learn how to scuba’, they don’t believe me.”
The Department of Tourism, in association with the Cody Unser foundation, Red Sail Sports and St. Matthew’s University are involved in helping the team of spinal cord injury researchers, veterans, paralympic athletes and Cody Unser herself to learn more about this subject. They will be on island until 12 May to participate in the study.
On Monday a public screening was held of the movie Cody: The First Steps, narrated by Glenn Close. The documentary is about the life and times of Cody during her undergraduate year at the University of Redlands, California, where she created her own major called Biopolitics.
The film won six awards at festivals across the US and was shown on Public Broadcasting stations there.
The screening in Cayman and elsewhere is meant to raise the awareness about living life with a disability and the importance of sport and physical activity for everyone.
The study was inspired by Cody Unser.