The Will to Dive

by Alyssa Quintero on March 1, 2006 - 9:29pm

QUEST Vol. 13, No. 2

“So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.”
— Christopher Reeve

Matthew Johnston

While it may seem both impossible and improbable on the surface, Matthew Johnston’s scuba diving dream is alive and well, and closer to becoming a reality.

Johnston, 29, has Duchenne muscular dystrophy and relies on 24-hour ventilator assistance. He had a trach inserted 11 years ago, he’s used a power wheelchair for 20 years, and he has movement only in his thumbs.

The Woodbury, Minn., man has dreamed of scuba diving in the ocean since he was a child. Now, with help from a team of researchers, innovators and medical professionals, he’s taking steps toward making his dream a reality.

“It is amazing,” Johnston emphasized. “I love being under water because you feel free. Because you’re weightless, I can actually hold my head up by myself with the help of a headrest. It’s very relaxing.”

Since April 2004, Johnston has been training for the “big” dive at the Courage Center’s aquatics facility in Stillwater, Minn. He had his first official practice dive in July 2004, and he’s made great strides since then.

Johnston plans to dive in Wazee Lake in Black River Falls, Wis., in June, and hopes to make his official ocean dive near the Bahamas in July. He’s currently working with the Diveheart Foundation, a scuba group for people with disabilities, in order to become a certified diver.

“I love it,” Johnson said about diving. “It makes my day. When I’m in my diving gear, it’s the happiest moment of the day.”

How does he do it?

Johnston does a practice dive every two weeks and will continue the practice sessions until the air and water pressure issues are stabilized.

Matthew Johnston and a professional diver underwater

He’s had seven dives that lasted over 30 minutes, with the longest at 60 minutes, and he’s reached a maximum depth of 6 feet with his current equipment. In a practice dive in January, he remained under water at 6 feet for 60 minutes. So far, he’s logged 280 minutes in practice dives.

At each practice dive, Johnston’s nurse and two professional ivers assist. The nurse stays above water to monitor the ventilator as it floats on the surface in a sealed, 9-gallon plastic container. She also monitors the ventilator connection that runs through Johnston’s drysuit, while the two divers accompany him under water.

Before each dive, Johnston is transferred into a manual wheelchair that goes into the water. Since he can’t move his arms or legs, he depends on the vent, drysuit and diving buddies for survival.

A latex neck shield keeps the water from entering the suit and interfering with the vent-trach connection, and Johnston wears a full-face mask. The risk is real, however, because if water were to get into the mask, Johnston could drown.

“With anything, there’s always risks, but I haven’t had a leak yet,” Johnston added. “If you take care of the suit with the proper maintenance, there shouldn’t be a problem.”

Additionally, Johnston’s face mask is attached to an underwater transceiver and surface transceiver that allow him to communicate with his fellow divers and nurse, and to those above water.

“Now that I can communicate under water, that will make my dream safer,” Johnston explained.

Equipment and technology challenges

Johnston is working with engineers to find a more adequate solution for the pressure challenges that he faces because of the trach and vent.

“We’re hoping to make a life-support system down the road and make a whole new vent to use under water,” he said.

Some friends are developing and testing possible new life-support systems that would enable him to stay under water longer and eventually allow Johnston to use a self-contained system under water.

“We have to make the vent the same pressure under water as above water,” he explained. “If you can get the vent to be the same pressure as your body, you can go a lot deeper. Right now, going past 8 feet would be too much pressure.”

As for the drysuit, it takes 25 minutes for Johnston to get in and out of the suit, which was custom-made and donated by Diving Unlimited International (DUI), a drysuit manufacturer in San Diego. The suit, which typically costs $2,000, has a one-of-a-kind ventilator connection, and the company installed a special wrist seal where the vent hose comes out of the suit to prevent leaking.

“I’m his cheerleader,” said Susan Long, DUI’s president. “Everybody needs a dream even if it’s something that you don’t end up achieving. What I’ve gotten out of this is to be able to make an impact on another person who can then make an impact on other people. That’s what it’s about — paying it forward.”

Funding the dream

Fulfilling Johnston’s dream will cost an estimated $200,000, including research and the development of an underwater ventilator. Johnston set up a donation fund through Project Innerspace, a nonprofit organization based in Providence, R.I., that promotes public awareness of ocean exploration.

Project coordinator Mike Lombardi said the Diving a Dream fund has raised $2,000. The money raised will go toward a new life support system, as well as the certified diver training courses that Johnston must complete. Lombardi said an additional $5,000 to $10,000 is necessary for equipment modifications, and to send Johnston and his team on their first ocean dive.

Making a difference

Johnston believes that his will and determination to achieve his scuba diving dream also will enable him to “make a difference in the world by helping to create better technology and making diving safer for everyone.

“I want to help open the door for other people with similar problems,” he explained. “There are a lot of people on vents, and they can’t handle it so they give up. I want to give people hope and encourage people to not give up on their dreams.”

Johnston, who already is considered a hero by many divers, is amazed at how far he has gotten with diving. He credits his friends and family with giving him the strength to persevere and pursue his seemingly impossible, yet inevitable dream.

“They [family and friends] give me hope, and I also give them hope,” Johnston said. “It’s not the length of your life that counts. It’s what you do with it.”

Johnston has seen photographs and video footage of what lies beneath the ocean’s surface. Although some challenges and obstacles remain, he’s inching closer toward his scuba diving dream.

“I just crave it, and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I just want to see it [ocean] for real,” he said.

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