For the past few years, I’ve been trying to keep two very distinct realities in my life separate. I’m not exactly sure why I felt the need to separate one from the other, but regardless, they are now merged whether I like it or not.
I can no longer pretend that living an adventure-filled, high activity, travel-intensive life comes without personal consequences. And no longer can I pretend that gearing up to shore dive, and plodding around with a heavy tank strapped to my back (not to mention the 12 pound weight belt sitting at my hips) is a piece of cake. This self-proclaimed adventure girl can no longer pretend that 7-10 consecutive days filled with diving and snorkeling is a breeze.
I didn’t want my blog to become dominated by musings of illness and disability. Perhaps that’s why I never wrote about the challenges of being a diver, snorkeler and world-traveler with a disabling disease.
Almost three years ago, I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). RA is a chronic, progressive, auto-immune disease in which the body attacks its own joints, tendons and internal organs. It’s accompanied by many symptoms, but among the most common are pain (often severe), stiffness, a flu-like feeling, joint destruction and extreme fatigue. I also have chronic sacroiliitis, most likely a form of spondylitis, which is a related auto-immune disease causing episodes of severe back pain and stiffness (sometimes rendering me unable to stand for more than 2-3 minutes at a time). These diseases are often called “invisible illnesses”, because those affected often do not “look sick”.
These conditions don’t exactly make it easy for me to continue living my high-activity lifestyle, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. What’s become increasingly apparent is that modifications must be made. Three dives per day might turn into two, one, or, “gasp”, a day of rest on vacation (previously unheard of for me). A two-hour snorkeling expedition might turn into a 45-minute sojourn. And those hour-long hikes, complete with intense vertical climbs up the cliff, may become twenty minutes of light walking on the treadmill.
Hopefully, this doesn’t make me any less cool, any less adventurous or any less of an underwater explorer.
I’ve learned a lot since I received this diagnosis three years ago. I’ve learned that the human body is capable of amazing things. I’ve learned that I can still be active, still go diving and snorkeling, and that I’m still the same person as before. I’ve learned that adequate rest is absolutely essential if I want to keep doing these things. I’ve learned that those who perservere and triumph in the face of disability and/or adversity have my utmost respect. I’ve learned to ask for help when I need it. And most importantly, I’ve learned not to judge others, because things are not always what they seem.
While relaxing on my balcony on a recent dive trip to Sunset House, Grand Cayman, I heard the familiar sound of clanking metal just below. I looked down to the sea pool to find the dive staff offloading a pallet of scuba tanks.
This meant that a group of divers would soon be shore diving. Typically, divers don their BC and tanks at the opposite end of the resort and walk to the sea pool (with tank already strapped on). Clearly something different was happening here. I wanted to know what it was.
About 30 minutes later, I saw a group of what appeared to be teens and young adults make their way to the sea pool. Many were sporting shirts and rashguards with the same logo. Some were walking, but most were pushing themselves in wheelchairs.
Intrigued, I grabbed my camera, zoomed in, and snapped a photo of the shirt. I then zoomed in on the logo. Stay-Focused, it read. Being the consummate techie, my iPad was at hand. I googled “Stay-Focused”, and what I found was a true inspiration.
Stay-Focused is a non-profit organization, dedicated to helping teens and young adults with disabilities develop leadership skills, gain confidence, learn independence, and set goals. At the core of Stay-Focused is a PADI scuba diving certification program, which is held annually in Grand Cayman. In almost ten years of operation, Stay-Focused has certified 66 new divers. In addition to the scuba certification program, Stay-Focused conducts medical research studying the effects, risks and benefits of scuba diving on persons with disabilities.
Upon my return home from the trip, I contacted the President of Stay-Focused, Roger Muller, to ask for an interview. Roger was gracious, immediately said yes, and suggested that I interview one of the emerging leaders in the organization – Ryan Chalmers.
Below is the full text of my interview with Ryan.
Reeftraveler (RT): How did you become involved with Stay-Focused?
Ryan Chalmers (RC): I first heard about the organization in 2005, when Roger Muller, Founder and President of Stay-Focused, came to a Junior Nationals Track and Field Competition and was introduced to my Dad to find out if he thought I would be interested in scuba diving. Of course, I was, and that summer I went through the Stay-Focused program at the age of 15.
RT: What is your role in the Stay-Focused organization?
RC: At the moment, I am an assistant to Roger as well as his mentee, and I have started to learn the ropes of what it takes to run the Stay-Focused organization. I have been given the opportunity to be more involved in the organization, managing relationships, and becoming a leader along the way.
RT: What unique challenges do divers with disabilities and mobility challenges face? How can you help them overcome these challenges?
RC: The great part of scuba diving, other than getting in and out of the water which can sometimes be a hassle, is not needing to face different challenges than those faced by an average, able-bodied diver. If you are not a very strong swimmer, you will get help from the water just like an able-bodied person. The same is true if you have trouble equalizing. This is one of the most rewarding parts of scuba diving because while in the water, people with disabilities get to experience freedom under the water with no limitations. A person with a disability can do exactly what his or her able-bodied dive buddy is doing.
RT: What has been the most rewarding aspect of being a mentor with Stay-Focused?
RC: The most rewarding part for me about being a mentor is being able to see the joy and sense of accomplishment on the kids’ faces I have mentored. During my first trip and my Reunion trip with Stay-Focused, changes were happening within me because of how incredible the organization is, and the goals the organization sets out to achieve – building leadership skills, instilling confidence, and experiencing freedom. But, at the time, I was unable to see them, partly because I was young, and partly because I was just so excited throughout the experience that I was hardly paying attention. During my mentorship, however, I was actually able to see the changes first-hand because they were happening to others. That is when I sat down and thought about how much of an impact this organization has had on my life, and realized I needed to stay involved with Stay-Focused one way or another, and continue to help provide other kids with disabilities the chance to have these incredible life experiences as well.
RT: If you could dive anywhere in the world, where would you go?
RC: I would keep diving in the Cayman Islands. In my opinion, diving does not get any better than in it is in Cayman. The visibility is incredible, you able to see over 100 feet down. The water temperature is perfect for persons with disabilities, like me, as well as for able- bodied individuals. The dive operations could not be more adaptable, and the staff at all the dive operations is great. If I could only dive in one location for the rest of my life, it would be in the Cayman Islands.
Looking ahead …
Ryan will be pushing his racing chair from Los Angeles to New York City (Push Across America), in the spring of 2013 (leaving LA on April 6, 2013 and arriving in NYC 71-days later on June 15th). Ryan’s goal is to build awareness for the potential of all persons with disabilities and support Stay-Focused. Ryan will also Push Across Cayman on November 24, 2012. (Insert Flyer) Major sponsors include the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, Dart Cayman Islands, and the Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort.
Ryan plans to complete his Divemaster certification, sponsored by Sunset House, in 2012. Way to go Ryan!