Nine members of Paralyzed Veterans of America (Paralyzed Veterans) are participating in a pioneering scuba medical study in the Cayman Islands that will explore the neurological, psychological, and pulmonary effects of scuba on individuals with spinal cord injury (SCI).
Photo courtesy Cody Unser First Step Foundation
Al Kovach Jr., a former Navy SEAL and current national senior vice president of Paralyzed Veterans, will be taking his first ocean dive since a military skydiving training accident in 1991 caused his paralysis.
“It’s a very cool study,” Kovach said. “(The medical professionals) are real anxious to get the results. They all know that psychologically scuba diving is going to be beneficial. They think we’ll see neurological improvements, but they’re not sure if they’ll be able to capture that to record it.”
After a dive at Denver’s Downtown Aquarium during the 2010 National Veterans Wheelchair Games, Kovach explained the allure of scuba for someone with SCI.
“I can be totally independent,” Kovach said. “I don’t need anyone holding my hand or pushing my wheelchair. Having neutral buoyancy, you have no weight on your back and neck. It’s freedom.”
Paralyzed Veterans member Chris Sullivan, paralyzed from a sniper’s bullet while serving in Iraq, said he’s thrilled to be involved in pioneering research and is enjoying it. “I'm really impressed with the doctors that are conducting the research,” he said. “If there are any benefits of scuba (for those with spinal cord disabilities), I'm confident they will find them."
“I’m very excited to be a part of something that can help my fellow veterans and possibly help them improve their quality of life.”
One dive will explore the decommissioned Kittiwake, a 1945-vintage submarine rescue ship. The 47-foot-tall ship is at a depth of 62 feet, so the top deck is close to the ocean’s surface, making it easily accessible to snorkel and scuba divers.
“As a Navy SEAL, I did a lot of diving,” Kovach said. “I was always busy working, so it wasn’t that fun. It will be fun to have paralyzed veterans on a ship sunk under the water.”
Other Paralyzed Veterans members participating in the research are Bob Molinatti, Cameron Ballensky, Craig Cascella, Jeff Scanlon, John Supon, Matt Robinson and Michael Paul.
The weeklong study, May 5–12, is being sponsored by the Cody Unser First Step Foundation in partnership with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at the Kennedy Krieger Institute.
Unser, a member of the Unser racing family and honorary member of Paralyzed Veterans, is paralyzed as a result of transverse myelitis. The Cayman Islands pilot study was the culmination of 10 years’ work by her to get the medical community to examine the benefits scuba may hold for people with spinal cord–related disabilities.
Patrick McCallister is a reporter in Florida and frequent contributor to PN Magazine.