Diveheart offers people with disabilities life-changing experiences

Rosemary Ciotti, MSN, RN, NP, knows firsthand what it’s like to live with a disability.

Several years ago at the age of 37, the avid biker, skier and competitive swimmer suddenly became wheelchair-bound. She was diagnosed with an undefined autoimmune disease that caused her to lose the use of her right leg and lose strength in her right arm and fingers.

“This was a great loss for me given that I was so active in sports,” said Ciotti, a disability healthcare consultant and case manager and disability activist in Arlington, Va.

But then she discovered Diveheart and her life changed again.

Rosemary Ciotti, RN, a disability healthcare consultant, case manager and disability activist in Arlington, Va., dives with Diveheart participant and friend Jeannette Green.

With a goal of building confidence and independence among veterans, children and adults with disabilities through scuba therapy, Diveheart uses an innovative and exciting method to temporarily decrease pain and help patients with disabilities increase their self-esteem. The Downers Grove, Ill., organization is making waves — in the most positive sense — in several states.

Ciotti was inspired to try scuba diving after learning about U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s use of the therapy.

“I saw her picture and thought, ‘So you can be in a wheelchair and scuba dive, too,’ ” she said.

Passion for people inspires Diveheart

If you are looking to become a volunteer for a worthwhile organization, Diveheart may be an ideal choice. Jim Elliott, founder and president of Diveheart, is passionate about helping people with physical and cognitive challenges temporarily break free of their wheelchairs and the societal restrictions sometimes placed on those living with disabilities — and his team members have that same drive.

Part of the nonprofit organization’s mission is to facilitate the opportunity to experience the thrill of scuba diving and the joy of engaging in a sport.

Elliott said many of Diveheart’s participants are accustomed to hearing they can’t do this or can’t do that from people with good intentions. But this can impinge on the development of self-confidence and self-identity for people with disabilities.

“Adaptive scuba divers will many times change their mindset and develop a new attitude after taking part in their training and diving,” Elliott said. “It’s common to hear them introduce themselves after diving with a new phrase, ‘I’m John or Sue the scuba diver.’ They no longer feel that they are just John or Sue in a wheelchair.”

Open to adaptive diver participants of all ages with physical and cognitive disabilities, Diveheart provides opportunities for scuba diving to military veterans and people with physical and cognitive challenges, such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, autism, Down syndrome, paraplegia, quadriplegia, post-traumatic stress disorder, visual and hearing impairments, traumatic brain injury and spina bifida. The organization also serves amputees and those born missing limbs, Elliott said.

Benefits abound for adaptive divers at Diveheart

In addition to gaining confidence, adaptive diver participants discover they have more mobility under water because they don’t have the restriction of gravity when they scuba dive like they do on dry land, Elliott said.

Diveheart staff prep a young participant for a scuba therapy session.

Valerie Perona, FNP-BC, and a Diveheart staff member prep a young participant for a scuba therapy session.

Soon after Diveheart’s inception, Elliott received feedback from adaptive divers with spinal cord injuries, including wounded veteran Ian Brown, who said the pain associated with their disabilities improved and nearly vanished while under water and for a brief amount of time after the dive, he said.

This led to Elliott approaching various academic institutions with the goal of conducting research to learn more about this phenomenon. Research related to scuba diving and its effects on people with spinal cord injuries has been conducted by Johns Hopkins and Western Illinois University, among others.

Conceptualizing and creating Diveheart in 2001 was a natural step for Elliott, a former media professional, who grew up with a father who was a wheelchair-bound World War II veteran.

An avid skier and scuba diver for the majority of his adult life, the oldest of Elliott’s two daughters, Erin, was born blind. At the age of 11, Erin showed an interest in learning how to ski. This led to Elliott becoming involved with teaching skiing to the visually impaired. This experience later segued into helping people with disabilities learn how to scuba dive and the founding of Diveheart.

Elliott’s desire to help others also is characteristic of most nurses. So it’s no surprise a number of nurses volunteer with Diveheart.

Nurse volunteers receive as much as they give

Valerie Perona, MSN, FNP-BC, a family nurse practitioner specializing in surgical oncology, was searching for a volunteer position in early 2017 when she discovered Diveheart’s Downers Grove location. Not a scuba diver herself at the time, Perona began with administrative tasks and helping out at special events. When someone asked her when she was going to get in the water, she realized it was time.

“I decided to go for it [and] began my scuba diving training and got certified,” she said. “So now I can volunteer in a more expanded role and can assist the adaptive divers in the water.”

Dubbed “adaptive dive buddies,” two or three certified divers who have undergone additional instruction assist adaptive divers. Intense, specialized training is required to learn about various disabilities, different types of equipment and the types of scenarios they might encounter, Perona said. Adaptive divers sometimes need to use various types of equipment that differ from other adaptive divers because adaptive equipment is specific to each disability.

One example is an adaptive diver who has limited mobility in his or her legs. That diver may need to wear fins on his or her hands, as opposed to his or her feet, to better propel through the water. Training for adaptive dive buddies also includes rehearsing multiple dive scenarios to learn how to continuously assess for risk and learn how to recognize …read more

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