Disabled veterans get new lease on life in Cayman
When Sean Ryan was shot in the chest during a robbery at a truck stop in California, his world fell apart.
He woke up seven weeks later in a hospital bed, paralysed from the chest down. For a former U.S. Navy officer who was used to being the “man of the house,” playing sports with his three kids, and living an active, outdoor life, the news was hard to take.
Now three years later, he is taking the plunge and learning to scuba dive in Cayman Brac, an experience which he says has given him a new lease on life.
“It feels like walking on the moon, you have this sense of weightlessness. I’m almost lost for words,” said Mr. Ryan, 39, one of nine disabled new divers, injured in accidents or on battlefields across the globe, on a trip to the Brac with the Dive Pirates organization.
Also on the trip are Matt Pundyk, who lost his leg after treading on an IED in Afghanistan, and Chris Hull, who has been in a wheelchair for a decade following a car smash in Florida.
The Dive Pirates group has been sponsoring people with disabilities to come to Cayman Brac to learn to dive for the past 10 years. In total, 85 people, many of them injured military veterans who got their first taste of diving on previous Pirates’ trips to the Brac, have taken over the Brac Reef Beach Resort this week.
The new divers and their buddies are funded by the nonprofit organization, which aims to make scuba diving more accessible to people with disabilities. For Mr. Ryan, it is an opportunity he never imagined would come his way.
“I was working for a trucking company, driving a tractor trailer, and I basically got shot in the chest with a .45 during a robbery at a truck stop,” he said. “I woke up seven weeks later in hospital to find out I was never going to be able to move anything below my nipples again. It completely changed my life.
“I had to go through extensive rehab just to learn how to manage my life. The mental aspect was the hardest part, I tried to stay positive and get through it, but at that time diving in the Cayman Islands didn’t even feature in my wildest dreams.”
Entering the warm, clear water and descending on the pristine coral reefs off the Brac on Monday was a cathartic experience.
“You have this weightlessness, it is like you are no longer paralysed. It’s a blessing. I’m so happy to be here,” he said.
“The degree of independence is like nothing I’ve experienced since the accident,” said Mr. Ryan, who has also learned to ski since becoming paralysed.
U.S. Army corporal Chris Hull was just 19 when his friend fell asleep at the wheel of his Chevy on Friday, the 13th of August, 2004. He broke his neck and 11 other bones and has been a quadriplegic ever since.
Like Mr. Ryan, he says a positive attitude was his biggest asset. He became an elite wheelchair rugby player and this is his third diving trip to the Brac.
“When I first started diving, I had hardly even swam since the accident. I kept getting water in my mouth because I couldn’t stop smiling so much,” said Mr. Hull, from Jacksonville, Florida.
Theresa Cortez, executive director of the Dive Pirates organization, said hundreds of disabled divers had similar experiences in Cayman Brac over the past decade.
“It’s such wonderful diving. There are so many options there and with the support and hospitality we get from the Brac Reef Beach Resort, it’s perfect.”
She said divers and their buddies undergo a specific training program to teach them to dive, or to support a diver with disabilities under water. The organization brings its own specialist instructors on the trip.