RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Jim Hay knows a thing or two about adventure and he certainly isn't one to shy away from a challenge.
So he was more than ready to pull on a wet suit, strap on a tank, gear and goggles and head into the deep end of the pool during a scuba diving excursion at the Rio Rancho Aquatic Center.
"You are really flying underwater. It's an amazing feeling," said Hay, a Vietnam veteran from Albuquerque. "It wasn't really scary. It was more exciting. It is just relaxing, fun and it's totally awesome."
Hay is like any other diver experiencing the weightlessness and tranquillity of the sport. But for him, the underwater freedom is much more precious.
For more than 20 years Hay has been a paraplegic, dependent on his wheelchair for mobility. Underwater, he is able to move his legs and direct his movements with a little help from trained diving instructors.
"I'm free," he said, clearly enjoying the experience.
Hay, a member of Paralyzed Veterans of America's New Mexico chapter, was one of several paraplegic veterans who got a taste of scuba diving during a training held recently by the Cody Unser First Step Foundation.
The Albuquerque-based foundation is the creation of Cody Unser, daughter of two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Al Unser Jr. and granddaughter of four-time Indy winner Al Unser Sr. At the age of 12, Cody was paralyzed from the chest down due to a rare immune system attack on her spinal cord, known as transverse myelitis.
She got the idea for Operation Deep Down, the foundation's military dive program, after earning her diving certification. "Once I did it … it became clear to me that I wanted to give this gift (of scuba diving) to anybody who's paralyzed," said Unser, now 21 and a senior at the University of Redlands in California.
Scuba diving is catching the attention of medical experts for the physical benefits it can have for people with disabilities. Some say diving could even lead to breakthroughs in the way doctors treat people with brain and spinal cord injuries.
At the pool, wheelchairs sit empty as instructors use a mix of humor, seriousness and patience to help the divers learn scuba basics and prepare for the day's ultimate goal — touching the bottom of the 12-foot pool.
To get started, the divers are lifted from their wheelchairs and placed on the pool deck. Instructors carefully dress them in wet suits and fit them with neoprene boots before carrying them into the water. Next come the vests, tanks, goggles and flippers.
"Is this where you get me all dressed up and then I have to go the bathroom?" jokes veteran Terry Conger, preparing for his first dive. Multiple sclerosis has left Conger disabled from the waist down.
Jim Elliott, certified diving instructor and founder of Diveheart, leads the training session as a mentor for the Operation Deep Down program. Elliott's foundation, based in the Chicago area, builds confidence in people with disabilities through scuba diving.
"I personally think that scuba diving is the most powerful sport in the world for people with disabilities. It's the only sport in the world where there's no gravity," Elliott said.
Operation Deep Down and Diveheart are but a few of the several adaptive scuba diving programs focusing on disabled veterans. The Walter Reed Army Medical Center offers sports activities as part of the Wounded Warrior-Disabled Sports Project, but its diving program has become the most popular.
John Thompson, a certified diving instructor and president of the center's Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba, has trained 100 injured veterans since his first class in February 2007.
"I'd see all the injured men and women and they were put in aquatic therapy. I looked at the situation and said there's a pool, and I'm a diving instructor, let's start something," Thompson said.
Former physical therapist and scuba course director Scott Taylor has been taking disabled patients to his A-1 Scuba shop in Englewood, Colo., for several years.
Diving allows weak muscles to move freely underwater.
"If you're a quadriplegic confined to an electric wheelchair, you don't have strong arm muscles but you might still have some muscles in your shoulder and wrists that are still functioning," said Taylor. "Underwater, all of the sudden, you might be able to move your arm forward or backward and propel underwater."
Such movement can help people with paralysis improve circulation, oxygenate tissues and increase lung capacity.
New Mexico Veterans Affairs Secretary John Garcia said complex injuries require new, innovative treatments to heal soldiers. "The VA has just started opening the door to this kind of alternative care and therapy, and looking at what else can we do to better the life of this soldier," he said.
Medical researchers are finding that exercise can help people with paralysis or brain injury heal their own bodies and possibly regain some function.
John McDonald, director of the International Center for Spinal Cord Injuries at the Kennedy Krieger Institute on the Johns Hopkins Baltimore campus, has focused his research on activity-based restoration therapies for the past decade.
McDonald worked with the late Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed from the neck down in a horseback riding accident, using a stationary bike with electrodes attached to the actor's legs to spur movement. Reeve also did pool therapy to strengthen his muscles.
Reeve recovered 70 percent of his sensory function, McDonald said. "Research has demonstrated activity is a critical component to allow your body to self-heal," he said. "If the nervous system is still active, it has the ability to do micro-repair. Your own nervous system is producing stem cells all the time. Without activity, you're not activating them and telling them what to do."