Doreen's Story: Scuba Diving With A Disability
by Doreen Barker
Doreen in the Red Sea with her helpers.
More than thirty years ago, I started to show the first symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis. Over the years my illness has progressively gotten worse, making it necessary for me to have both hips and both knee joints replaced.
Unfortunately, the knee joint replacements were not too successful, so you find me today unable to bend my knees and confined to a wheelchair for most of the time.
My husband, Chris, who has been a Scuba diver for several years, had often said to me that if only he could get me in the water it would be great for me, as the water would take the weight off all my joints and let me get some exercise without too much strain. However, I had a huge fear of the water because I almost drowned once in the hydrotherapy pool at the hospital, having been unable to get myself out of the hoist when it tipped over leaving me with my head underwater. So for years I had resisted going anywhere near the water, any water.
That was until some years ago, when Chris booked us a holiday at Dive Urge, Scuba Diving Club, in Dahab, Egypt. As well as their environmental ethos, Dive Urge have a policy of helping people with disabilities enjoy diving, and they made me the offer that, while we were out there, they would take me “supplied air snorkeling”.
In other words I would have a tank of air and a BCD (buoyancy control device) on my back and breathe through a regulator instead of a snorkel. (Because of the arthritis I have limited neck movement and am unable to move my head enough to keep a snorkel tube above water.) The dive would be just below the surface as though I was using a snorkel, but would allow me to see the beauty of the underwater world.
Much to Chris’s surprise, the idea struck a chord with me and I did not reject it out of hand. We got in touch with the Scuba Trust and went to a try dive at Dorking in Surrey. When I saw other people, some with worst disabilities than me, in the pool, I thought “if they can do it, so can I”.
The time came for me to go in the pool.
Shaking with fear I was lowered in. Gentle hands held on to me, gentle words reassured me, the air in the BCD on my back supported me. I was floating!
The following month saw me back in the pool again, only this time I had an air tank on the BCD and a regulator in my mouth. Soon I was encouraged to put my face down in the water and try breathing underwater. It worked! I could breathe underwater! By the end of the session I had been underwater in the deep end of the pool, I loved it!
Then it was time for the holiday in Dahab. Lynn, who runs Dive Urge, made me feel I was a normal part of the diving community and I didn’t feel out of place. I could get to like this!
The day came when I was to do my first supplied air snorkel. Charlie, who was to be my instructor, lent me his own shortie wetsuit, as it was easy for me to get in to. We went to the lighthouse area of Dahab. Chris wheeled me along the promenade to get there, while Charlie brought the dive gear in one of the jeeps.
There was a short steep ramp down to the water and Charlie and Chris took me down it in my wheelchair to the edge of the Red Sea. They lifted me out of my wheelchair and floated me on my back. I was in the sea!
It was warm and relaxing. They slid my kit under me and clipped the straps tight around me. I was ready. Charlie put the regulator in my mouth and asked me if I was ready. We had arranged a set of signals I could use, one squeeze of his hand meant yes and two meant no, three or more meant problems/surface immediately.
I gave his hand one squeeze and he turned me over, face down. After a few seconds he turned me back over and said “very good Doreen, you didn’t panic, you kept breathing normally, but next time open your eyes!”
Charlie had looked underwater to check I was alright and had seen me with my eyes tight shut! I said okay and back in went the regulator and I was turned over again face down in the water.
Chris then describes what happened next:
When Doreen went face down in the water, her head began to move about left and right, quite violently. Charlie and I thought she was in difficulty, maybe even drowning, although we could see air bubbles all around either side of her face.
We flipped her back over onto her back and Charlie grabbed the regulator out of her mouth. He was then greeted with the words, “Wow, that was fantastic! I could see these little coloured fish going here there and everywhere!”
We both fell about laughing! Doreen hadn’t been panicking; she had been trying to watch the fish!
After they stopped laughing, Charlie turned me back over, put his arm around me and his hand in mine and started swimming us out into deeper water. He let some of the air out of my BCD and I sunk down just below the surface.
In front of and below me was the most spectacular sight. There was a coral wall with literally thousands of coloured fish swimming around. I was in a world of beauty. I knew now why Chris loved diving so much.
I was seeing, with my own eyes, things that I had only ever seen on TV before. That, the tranquility and the feeling of weightlessness as well, I was hooked!
When we returned to shore, lots of divers came over to help get me back up the ramp to the promenade, and they were all saying how great it was to see someone in a wheelchair go diving.
On the way back to Dive Urge, all I could talk about was what I had seen. At the debriefing, with Charlie, he was delighted to find out how much I had seen during our 1 hour 20 minute first adventure. I think it gave him a great feeling to know how much I had gained from the experience.
Charlie gave me my own log book to record my dives and I went on to do several more supplied air snorkels with him during the holiday. By the time we came home I knew I had to learn to dive.
At the end of my stay, Lynn presented me with a certificate for bravery in supplied air snorkelling, which now has pride of place on the wall of our lounge.
The next try dive day, it was back to the pool, in Dorking, with the Scuba Trust. Chris paid for me to do the open water course, but insisted that he took no part in my training as he wanted me to be learning it for me, not for him. He acted as a pool helper with other instructors instead.
We became regulars at the try dives and I slowly learnt all the things I had to know and be able to do, mask clearing, regulator recovery, etc. etc. Things I never would have dreamed of doing 6 months before.
Now I was underwater, in the pool, every month, doing my exercises, and, in between, going back twice to Dahab and spending more time in the Red Sea, this time with instructors Tom and Clare.
Finally the day came when my Scuba Trust instructor, Frank, told me to get booked on the Scuba Trust holiday to Hurghada, in Egypt, so that I could do the open water section of my course with him.
Chris and I booked to go on the trip and my next pool session was spent being thrown off the side of the pool, to simulate being thrown off the back of a boat, so that I would know what to expect during the boat diving.
We went on the trip to Hurghada and I duly found myself being thrown off the back of a boat, towards the waiting arms of Frank, Paul, Ron and Gill.
We descended into about 10 metres of water and I had to do my skills tests. Afterwards we went for a swim over to the coral reef which we had anchored near. Being right down with the fish was really amazing. I became so relaxed that my air consumption went way down, which caused a little confusion when we surfaced as they thought my gauge must be faulty, but it wasn’t!
We did a dive each day from the boat and by the end of the holiday I was qualified as an IAHD 3 Open Water Diver.
I have been back to Dive Urge, at Dahab, several times now and have dived several sites including the Blue Hole!
I now do something even my able bodied brothers and sisters can’t do. Dive!
Doreen Barker: Scuba Diver
Unfortunately, I have sad news to report. Not too long after this story was first published, I received word from Doreen's husband that she had passed away due to ovarian cancer.
Our heart goes out to Chris and his family. Doreen's story was amazing and I can't tell you how much we admired her. I am sure her story will continue to inspire others.
Her husband Chris says it best:
"She was the bravest woman I ever knew and faced death with the same courage she faced life...It gives me great comfort to know that, through her story on your website, she may continue to be an inspiration to others...Doreen loved the story being on there for other folks to read and learn that people with disabilities can still be active in the sport. Doreen died the same way as she lived, with tremendous courage and always cheerful till the last."