MIRAMAR, Fla. – Of the 60,000 people diagnosed with ALS each year, approximately 16% are military veterans.
This rare neurological disease progressively makes it difficult for patients to use voluntary muscles, including the ability to even breathe.
When John Hartwell was diagnosed with ALS in June 2016, he adopted an optimistic attitude in the face of a daunting future.
“I’m doing pretty well. The arms don’t work and the legs are starting to go, but I’m still scooting around in my wheelchair. That way I get some exercise on my legs and, you know, do what I can while I can,” Hartwell said.
When the Air Force veteran was chosen for a special opportunity called “the hero dive” — a chance to interact with sea life at the Georgia Aquarium — he couldn’t wait.
“This is a phenomenal opportunity. Can’t wait to get in there and see something while I’m diving, because most of the other times I’ve been diving you rarely see anything big,” Hartwell said.
“We provide the opportunity for people with disabilities to scuba dive underwater. We do anyone from an amputee to a spinal cord injury to PTSD,” said Charley Wright with the St. Louis VA Medical Center.
Wright founded the nonprofit organization LifeWaters when he was studying to become a recreational therapist.
The first “hero dive” was in Key West but a controlled environment soon became the better choice.
“With the aquarium, you always know what you are going to get and there is a 100% chance you are going to run into a whale shark,” Wright said.
“I’ve been on every hero dive, just can’t believe what it does for these guys and gals,” said Matthew Wilson, president and co-founder of LifeWaters.
While Hartwell’s chest muscles weren’t strong enough for him to scuba dive, the LifeWaters team shifted gears and helped him snorkel.
Hartwell loved every minute.
“This whole group has been fantastic. I’m just very lucky that I got picked for this. What can I say? Absolutely great,” he said.
The LifeWaters organization is staffed by volunteers and relies on grants and donations to help improve the lives of people suffering from any type of mobility impairment.
For more information on LifeWaters, click here.