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Diver who almost died there eyes return to Eagle Nest Sink

An aerial view shows why the Eagle Nest sinkhole, located in northwestern Hernando County, may have gotten its name. At least six divers have died there since 1981, the latest this week.

Times (2004)

An aerial view shows why the Eagle Nest sinkhole, located in northwestern Hernando County, may have gotten its name. At least six divers have died there since 1981, the latest this week.

WEEKI WACHEE — When divers pulled Judi Bedard from the waters of Eagle Nest Sink in September 2005, she wasn't breathing. She had no pulse, and she was hemorrhaging from her eyes and ears.

Bedard was flown to Shands at the University of Florida, then later transferred to Tampa General Hospital. She didn't regain full consciousness for a couple of months.

After that came months of grueling rehabilitation as Bedard learned again how to walk, how to talk — even how to brush her hair.

Today, one of her doctors calls the 52-year-old Bedard's recovery "miraculous."

This week, after James D. Woodall II, 39, of Richmond, Ky., drowned while diving in Eagle Nest, Bedard recalled her near-death experience in the intricate underwater caverns and her battle to resume a normal life.

Her story is a reminder of the dangers that await even the most seasoned divers in one of the most sought-out diving spots in the world.

• • •

Woodall became at least the sixth diver to die at Eagle Nest since 1981. He and his diving partner, Gregory Snowden, were experienced divers, but had no cave-diving certification. Authorities said Woodall's breathing equipment malfunctioned.

Four years ago, Bedard was minutes away from becoming one of the grisly cautionary tales at Eagle Nest.

On Sept. 11, 2005, Bedard, who worked as a registered nurse at Tampa General Hospital, and her longtime boyfriend, Rudy Banks, made their way to Eagle Nest for an afternoon of diving in the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area in western Hernando County.

They had been to the site at least a dozen times before, Bedard said.

Eagle Nest is hugely popular, often referred to as the "Mount Everest" or "Grand Canyon" of cave diving because of its stunning views, extreme depth and remote location.

An unassuming, algae-covered pond leads to a challenge best left to experienced, certified cave divers — like Bedard and Banks.

"It's basically like being on the moon," Bedard said.

According to reports from that day, the couple started their descent sometime after 4:30 p.m. When Bedard reached the bottom of a cave, about 130 feet down, she had a problem with one of her gas tanks.

Banks soon realized Bedard was struggling and quickly brought her up. By the time they reached the surface, Bedard was unconscious.

A man taking photos in the area managed to resuscitate Bedard. She was then flown to Shands.

In those first few weeks, expectations for much of a recovery were low.

Bedard was in a coma for about two months, a period of unconsciousness interrupted only briefly before she was transported to Tampa General, where she was to begin rehab. She didn't regain full consciousness until November.

"I remember waking up," Bedard said. "I couldn't move. My legs had atrophied; I had on a (tracheostomy) tube. I thought, 'Oh, my God.' "

Not surprisingly, the time in the hospital had wreaked havoc on her athletic body. Bedard had suffered from cardiac arrest, respiratory failure, multiple organ complications, cognitive erosion and post-traumatic amnesia.

At worst, patients succumb after suffering through so much trauma. In a more promising scenario, a patient would be left with neurological impairment and physical disability in the arms and legs, possibly paralysis.

"A lot of people didn't expect (Bedard) to live," said Dr. Venerando Batas, medical director of the Tampa General Rehabilitation Center.

• • •

Yet even as she was confined to a hospital bed, with tubes assisting with her breathing and eating, Bedard dreamed of returning to a normal life.

She put everything she had into her new rehab program over the next couple of months.

When she started, she needed help getting in and out of bed. She had trouble keeping her balance. Even with the assistance of a walker with wheels, going about 10 feet left her breathless.

But within about five weeks, Bedard was walking more than 300 feet.

"For what she had, it was one of the best outcomes I've ever seen," said John Charles, formerly a physical therapist on brain injury team at the rehab center.

Bedard was released from the hospital in January 2006, but continued the rehab program on an outpatient basis for another six months. During that time, Bedard worked on rebuilding her strength, flexibility and coordination.

"She is truly a miracle," said trainer and friend Suzan Mekler. "To see her make all that progress ... she's the highlight of my career."

• • •

The next summer, just off the coast near New Port Richey, Bedard did what once seemed unthinkable: She accompanied Banks, now her husband, on an open-water dive into the Gulf of Mexico.

It was something she had dreamed of as she lay in bed and through her months of rehab.

"It was never a question — at least to me — that I was going to be out there diving," Bedard said. "I wanted to retire and dive for rest of my life."

To that end, Bedard has reordered her life.

She returned to work as a nurse in the operating room at Tampa General in June 2007, but later decided to transfer to the medical records department. Bedard didn't want to work a lot of overtime, leaving more time for diving.

After shaking off some rust and a bundle of nerves, Bedard started exploring underwater caves again. She has tried a few spots, including Peacock Springs in North Florida.

"It's all felt so natural, so wonderful," she said. "It's like heaven on Earth."

And Eagle Nest?

She plans to try it again.

"I just have to get my gear sorted out and keep my husband from working so much," she said.

"I'm undaunted."

Joel Anderson can be reached at joelanderson@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6120.

Diver who almost died there eyes return to Eagle Nest Sink 11/06/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 6, 2009 10:46pm]
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