Lauren ‘O’ in the land of the Manatees

Indian Valley Scuba & IAHD-Americas – perfect together!

2011 starts off with a very, very special trip south to visit the manatees and explore the freshwater springs of North Central Florida.  Why so special, you ask?  We come here every year to play with the second largest mammals found in the ocean and root around in the underground caverns and caves that cover this region.  I’ll tell you why this years trip is one of the most special ever – because we are celebrating Lauren Ostrowski’s checkout dives this weekend.

Hmmmm, you are thinking……it seems IVS is doing that just about every weekend of the year someplace!  True, true, we do so love to dive and introduce others to this wonderful sport, but our student this weekend is extra special, and I think you’ll feel the same way as I share her story with our readers.

Lauren Ostrowski and her family have been part of our latest International Association of Handicapped Divers (IAHD-Americas) project here at IVS for the past 16 months.  Lauren is 28 years old, and has spastic, quadriplegic cerebral palsy, a condition that affects the way her brain sends signals to control her muscles.  It affects how she moves her entire body and all of her muscles are tight, making her body stiff and her limbs nearly set in position.  Her effective movement is limited to her right hand, and her left for some typing, as well as her neck & head, qualifying her for the title quadriplegic, or quad for short, the term used for those with limited or no usage of all four appendages.  She uses a motorized wheelchair for mobility and there’s a lot more to her than what you see at first glance.  She has a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.  Edinboro is a school located outside of Erie, PA, with about 9,000 students in attendance.  What makes this school differ from others, though, is that Edinboro receives state funding to provide personal care to those students that need help with activities of daily living, such as getting dressed, eating and more.  There are usually about 60 students enrolled that are in need of some kind of help.  Edinboro also provides people to assist with meals and writing answers to exams.  Lauren says Edinboro was really a springboard for a lot of what she does now and plans to do in the future.  Lauren has a full-time job as an outpatient psychotherapist, is a National Certified Counselor, and is working on becoming a Licensed Professional Counselor.

Her life has not been an easy one.  The effects of this birth defect, which approx 10,000 babies are born with annually in the United States alone, are varied and the symptons range from mild to severe, often accompanied with some form of mental retardation.  While Lauren suffers from the physical attributes of this disorder, her mind is as sharp as a tack and her mental process clear and bright, as evidenced by her attainment of her masters degree noted above.  From the physical side though, life has been a challenge, with major spinal surgery at age 14 to correct severe scoliosis, which her twisting her in a twisted position towards her left side.  Failure to address this would eventually lead to grave difficulty in breathing as her lungs compressed against her other organs.  In the surgical process, which included the insertion of a pair of rods and a pound or two of stainless wire into her spine, she ended up growing 4 inches in height, and on a side note, can now carry firearms without detection through any TSA location!  She attended Lower Pottsgrove Elementary, enrolled in regular education since third grade, in spite of her need to be fed and assisted by others. She is  truly a trooper, and graduated from Pottsgrove High in 2000, and  was accepted in Edinboro with classes starting in the fall.   Any one of these challenges might be more than the average person could deal with, but does any of this keep Lauren down?  Not a chance!!

Outside of diving, Lauren enjoys parasailing, gliding  (or soaring) with Freedom’s Wings (that is her on the front page with her mom and a glider pilot) and playing power soccer.  Lauren also would like to try adaptive skiing and floor hockey, but hasn’t quite gotten around to those……..yet!

Lauren’s interest in diving was actually spawned more than 10 years ago when she was attending a summer camp session at the Variety Club.  There, she got to try scuba equipment for about five minutes in the pool, but it was enough to get her hooked.  In the summer of 2009, she did a Discover Dive while on vacation with a friend and the wonderful instructor, leading to a renewed interest and desire to do much more diving.  During the 2009 Dive-in Festival at IVS, Lauren met Butch Loggins and after hearing about her interest in diving, he answered with “Let me go get the boss…” and the rest is history in the making now!

Once Lauren committed to learn to dive, the IAHD-Americas professionals at Indian Valley Scuba wasted no time getting the plans in motion.  Dave Valaika stepped up to be the lead instructor in the process, and his support team included Joyce Kichman, Katie Chin, and Linda Gusenko.  A training program was mapped out, and once Lauren’s abilities were assessed, we determined that she would qualify as a Level 3 IAHD-Americas certified diver.  For those unfamiliar with adaptive scuba certification levels, IAHD-Americas ranks them under three broad categories, Levels 1, 2, & 3.  The deciding factor in all cases is how easily the adaptive diver can affect a self-rescue, or assist another diver in a rescue, while underwater AND on the surface.  In Lauren’s case, she would not only be unable to assist in a rescue, but in fact, if abandoned underwater, could not bring herself safely to the surface.  Thus, a minimum of three support divers are required, with the mindset that in the event one of the divers required assistance, a second diver could render such assistance, and still one diver would be available to focus 100% on Lauren, leading her to the surface safely and stabilizing her in a positively buoyant state on the surface.

And so it began, with Lauren’s dad and brother (Guy and Kyle) making the decision to take the entire scuba diving course with Lauren.  We began our program in January, 2010, and the three of them worked together on the academics.  For the confined water work though, Dave and his team of support divers worked solely with Lauren, while Kyle & Guy trained alongside in a regular class.  This allowed them to observe what Lauren was learning, without compromising their scuba education experience.  Once the Ostrowski men  completed their academics & confined water activities, they were able to join Team IVS and get their checkout dives completed at Dutch Springs last summer.  This was an important prerequisite to becoming qualified to be adaptive scuba support divers for Lauren.  With their intimate knowledge of Lauren’s condition, no one is more qualified to be part her dive plan anywhere!  Gail, Lauren & Kyle’s mom, is an avid snorkeler, and is IVS’s next challenge to get her into diving and through the certification process.  She might prove to be a tougher nut to crack than Lauren, but we all know I don’t give up easy!  Even as a snorkeler though, on this trip, with it’s excellent shallow, clear water locations, mom will be in on all the fun and adventure we’re about to enjoy!

Lauren’s classes continued all year, as her family’s schedule allowed.  Each session allowed us to work on the continuing evolution of Lauren’s equipment requirements and considerations as to what would work best for her.  First and foremost, we knew after the very first session that Lauren would need some environmental protection to keep her from turning blue and shivering!  With her limbs as they were, slipping into a traditional wetsuit was out of consideration.  So Beverly worked with Lauren and our wetsuit suppliers, and we found a suit combination that fit her dimensions, then installed full length zippers from neck to wrists on both arms, allowing us to slip it around her and then zip her into place without placing undue stress on her joints.  First problem solved!

Now onto the next – with her inability to recover and replace a lost regulator, this caused an awful lot of stress as we would submerge and swim underwater, as even a partial slippage of the mouthpiece would allow some water to flow into her mouth, and only by watching her eyes widen would be know that perhaps something was amiss, and surface to sort it out.  To address this, we switched to full face masks, which completely covered her face, enclosing eyes, nose and mouth in one space.  This let her breath any way she wanted, and the masks clear so easily, any intrusion of water could be seen by her support divers and easily dealt with.  Additionally, this allowed us to add a communications system, so Lauren could talk underwater to her co-divers. With her limited ability to affect movement, communications were indeed a challenge.  Lauren could not initiate an OK or “not OK” signal underwater, so it was imperative that one of her support divers maintained continuous eye contact with Lauren at all times.  We managed this by having her primary support diver swim inverted underneath Lauren, ‘reading’ her eyes, while one of the other support divers served to steer the team and avoid obstacles underwater.  A second support diver was needed to provide stability as Lauren’s body has a distinct tendency to “turn turtle” and roll her around, tank down, face up.

Once we had the lost regulator issue resolved with the full face masks, it was time to work on the stability in the water.  There are many ways to deal with this, and some in the adaptive scuba field promote slinging weights below the diver, in a pendulum fashion.  While this provides a significant improvement in the diver’s stability while horizontal and under the water, it proves to be potentially dangerous when the diver is turned in an upright position, and the pendulum-mounted weights swing down to their legs, or even their chest, and influence the ability to maintain a comfortable, face-up position on the surface.  Our approach differs from this convention, as we seek to incorporate stability into the diver as a “package”, by trimming the weights and strategically addressing the factors that influence why they are instable in the water, such as a large scuba cylinder and it’s center of gravity mounted behind and on top of the diver.

Part of the issue here is that Lauren’s muscles have stiffened in a “seated” position, and it is difficult to stretch her legs out.  Secondly, she has a bit of a J-Lo build, and that extra ‘junk in the trunk’ makes her tend to float ‘butt high’.  So we spent quite a bit of time working to achieve balance for her both under the water and on the surface.  Some of the techniques we used included mounting twin 30 CF cylinders on her back, which lowered and widened the CG (center of gravity) across her frame.  We switched to a backplate system from a jacket-style BC, and this allowed us to gain an additional six pounds of weighting from the stainless steel backplate evenly distributed across her back.  Conversely, the back-mounted inflation also removed any positive buoyancy from the front of her body when we were on the surface, so this technique is a double-edged sword, so to speak.   To address the excess positive buoyancy in her pelvic area, we added custom weight pockets to the hips of her wetsuit, allowing us to target the weighting exactly where it was needed, without adding a cumbersome weight belt.  We had tried ankle weights, but found they simply lowered her feet and in fact exacerbated the butt high position, so we knew they were not the answer.

We finally settled on a 40 CF single cylinder, which was lighter to manage than the twin 30’s, and provided ample air for Lauren to dive with.  We made custom tank bands to mount this on the backplate system, and installed it with the valve opening facing away from the diver, a reverse from the conventional method.  This allowed us to use a DIN regulator and remove the bulk of the regulator or yoke from the area behind Lauren’s head, improving her comfort substantially.

With everything tested and proven, it was time to actually plan a trip to a location that lent itself to the conditions and style of diving that would be most appropriate for Lauren for her check out dives.  Hence the decision to go with the Manatee trip, which afforded us some shore entries, and a platform boat with no adverse sea conditions to deal with.  Our dive operator of choice for this mission would be  Adventure Dive Center in Crystal River, FL, operated by our good friends Carl & Dave, so we made the arrangements and prepared for our trip.

Finally it was show time, and we all flew out of Philadelphia this morning to Orlando.  Dave traveled on his signature carrier Delta, while the Ostrowski’s flew on Southwest for the convenience of a non-stop travel experience.  It’s not easy for a quad to travel, but thankfully Southwest’s team was ready to accommodate and make the trip as painless as possible.  Lauren drives her chair down the jetway, and thanks to her slight frame, Guy simply picks her up and carries her aboard.  The chair is then stored under the plane, which in itself is no small task, as Lauren’s little Cadillac weighs approx 250 pounds without anyone sitting in it.  Once they arrived in Orlando, they allowed the rest of the plane to disembark, and the ground crew brought her chair up to the jetway. Guy then carried her off the plane, and once back in her chair, Lauren demonstrated why her email address starts off with “Speedie” !

Off to the rental van company, and they scored a full size Ford van with a hydraulic lift ramp in the rear.  Not quite as nice as the modified Toyota Sienna they have at home, where Lauren can easily load herself and then enjoys a front passenger seat position for a great view, but it’s wheels none the less. Once they have loaded in the van, they call and rescue me from the grips of the Delta Crown Room, and I head down, find my bags at the baggage office, and we load up and roll.  It’s a short 90 mile ride from the Orlando airport to the Holiday Inn Express in Crystal River, our base of operations for this weekends adventure.  We check in, grab our rooms, and get ready to crash for the night.  But first we need some grub, and we head to Quiznos, located a 1/4 mile down the road from the hotel.  We get our sandwiches ordered, and as I check out, I am reminded we are not in Kansas anymore, Toto.  The young lady at the register swipes my credit card, and then asks, “is this a gift card?”.  “No”, I reply, “why on earth would you ask that?”  “Cause it only rang up part of your bill”, she says, showing me the receipt which is about six dollars short of the total.  Clearly we are not dealing with a rocket scientist here, and I shrug my shoulders, as she scratches her head and tries to figure out what to do.  “Can you call someone”, I query.  “Oh yes”, she says, and picks up the phone to dial.  Well a blind guy could see from the look on her face that this was going nowhere positive and we were beyond her realm of reasoning.  So, tired as I was, I pulled out a business card, and said to her “have your boss call me in the morning to settle this up”.  With that, we left, headed back to the hotel, and crashed for the night.

Well sure enough Friday morning my phone rings, and it’s Michael Kazemfar, the owner of Quiznos.  He apologoizes for the events the night before, and I tell him we’ll swing by on our way out to take care of things.  We load up after enjoying our free breakfast at the Holiday Inn, and make our first stop at the sub shop.  I walk in and ask for Mike, and who comes rolling up to me but Michael himself, in his chair.  I introduce myself, we both laugh over his employee selection process, we settle the balance of my bill, and get into a conversation about what he’s doing in a wheelchair at Quiznos.  Well it turns out he missed his polio vaccination when he was young, and at age two, was misdiagnosed, allowing his polio to affect a substantial part of his lower limbs before finally stopping.  “How about that”, I say, “have you ever considered scuba diving?”  I then tell him about Lauren and why we are here, and then he shocks by saying he’s a certified diver, and also enjoys snorkeling, kayaking and a myriad of other water activities.  He introduces his assistant, who happens to be his daughter and dive buddy, and we all get a great bonding moment to start off the day.

So with that behind us, we head out to meet with Carl & Dave at Adventure Scuba Diving, and get ready for a fun day with them. First it’s the mandatory educational video presentation from the US Fish & Wildlife Agency, where we are informed of the proper (and improper) way to hug and interact with the manatees.  We get some tanks, and head over to Hunter Spring, a nice easy shore entry for Lauren’s first open water dive experience.

Hunter Springs is a pretty little state park, with a beach, bath house, and nice set of concrete stairs down into the water.  We gear up, and get ready for our first drop. Everyone suits up, we get Lauren dressed, and we enter the water, which is only a couple feet deep at the bottom of the stairs.   The key to a great diver experience is ensuring that we have Lauren’s mask properly positioned on her face, sealing tightly but not too tight, and with the internal nose blocks adjusted and set to allow her to clear with assistance at depth.  Once she gives the the virtual thumbs up (with her eyes) the rest of us gear up and we head under.  As you might suspect we have kicked up a bit of silt with all standing, but as soon as we near the springs the water clears up to perfect visibility and hundreds of fish watch us as the we enjoy our underwater exploration.  The flow is pretty good here from two major holes in the bottom, plus a number of smaller sand boils where the force of the incoming water causes the sandy bottom to dance continuously.  We get a good 25 minutes of bottom time here, with a max depth of about 13 feet, and consider this our first dive a complete success!

From there we head back to Adventure Scuba to top off our tanks, and then grab lunch at a local restaurant.  From there, we drive a half hour up through Dunellon to the K. P. Hole county park located on the Rainbow River.  Dave meets us there with one of Adventures pontoon boats that he has trailered up, and we load up and head up river.  The sun has abandoned us, and there is a distinct chill in the air, but we soldier on, cause their is some great diving to be had!  We approach the headwaters and Dave pulls the boat to the bank and we tie off to a tree so we can get everyone set and in the water to being this fun drift dive.  Everything checks out OK, and Guy, Kyle, Lauren and I slip beneath the surface, and enjoy the almost surreal serenity of this underwater wonderland.  Visibility is in excess of 100 feet, there are fish everywhere, and the bottom varies from flowing grasses to rubble to rock ledges, with some sunken trees added for extra color.  As we sail along the depth varies from 5 to 25 feet, and Lauren is having a bit of a struggle clearing her right ear on the deeper parts, as she worked it a tad too hard on the airplane ride down on Thursday.  Not a problem, we just watch our depths, and enjoy the ride, kicking only as much as we need to maintain steerage with the current doing most of the work for us.  Hiding in the grasses were all sorts of painted turtles, Florida Shad, bass, and other critters, forcing us to keep our heads on a spindle, looking right, left and ahead to not miss a thing.  Hey, what’s that up there, as we see something in the grass……hmmm…looks like a dead bird…..we get closer…..and guess what? ..it’s not a dead bird, it’s a hunting bird, working on nailing something to eat in the grass!   Well we certainly fouled it’s dinner plans, and it swam past us, and I know in my soul that that if it had fingers, it would showing us a certain one to show his appreciation for our interference!  Oooops…sorry!

We continue on, and finally Kyle is getting chilled and also having some ear clearing issues, so we surface, and he climbs back aboard.  Captain Dave says “are you guys getting on?” and we look at Lauren, who screams though her mask “more please!”.  Enough said, we get back to our diving, just the three of us.  Another mile or so downstream we’re cruising along, and I spot the mother of all turtles just on the other side of a hump in front of us.  With that, i grab Lauren buy the chin to make sure her eyes are pointing in the right direction, and we sail right over that first hump and enjoy a great view of the turtle as he takes in his visitors and then slowly swims off to the side.  Well we couldn’t stop looking so all three of us were watching off to the side, and guess what was in front of us?  Another big friggin’ hump in the river bottom, against which I was able to firmly slam Lauren into, face first!  For a moment, my heart skipped a beat, but when I looked and her eyes open and that she was breathing normally, I began to laugh out loud uncontrollably in my full face mask.  So loud in fact that Lauren’s mom Gail heard it up on the boat and asked Captain Dave if he thought everything was OK.  Meanwhile, we’re just sailing along, and yep, there go the buoys marking the swim area where we boarded the boat, and then some more, and I am thinking, I don’t remember this part of the river, but what the heck, we’re having fun!   So we kept on going, and going, and going……..until that telltale sound of the banging on the ladder told us it was time to finally end this dive.  We popped up, and sure enough, there was Dave and the boat waiting for us.  Turned out that they had already tied up at the dock, figuring we were going to stop, and Kyle had gone up to bring the van down, when they realized the S.S> Lauren was still steaming south down the river!  So untie the boat, fire up the engines, and catch up with the divers!  It’s all good and nobody lost an eye – just another great day of fun and adventure on the water!

We headed back to hotel and everyone gussied up for dinner.  Tonight we headed down to Cody’s Steakhouse, a local favorite dining place and watering hole.  There was a bit of a wait, so we went to the hostess station and asked how long.  Well, I have often wondered where the airlines send their pilots to learn how to gracefully lie to the passengers about how long a delay will be.  Tonight, I found that place!  Only ten minutes, the young ladies said, so we waited.  Thirty minutes later, we went back up, and with that same great smile, they said “only about 10 minutes”.  Time has truly stood still for us here, but how much longer ( or how many more “10 minutes” can it be?).  Finally, we’re seated, and our server saunters up to our table, whips out a crown, and as she scrawls her name across the white tablecloth, announces she is Faye, and will be taking care of us tonight.  Talk about setting the right kind of tone for this group!  You can tell from that moment that dinner was a non-stop hoot, from Kyle’s massive 40 ounce margarita to Guy telling Faye he can’t decide what to order, so just surprise him!  We were laughing so much it almost hurt and the food was fantastic too!  What a fun night!

Saturday and we had already decided to take the day off from diving so Lauren’s muscles could recover from Friday’s abuse (not to mention unintended crash into the river bottom!)  Guy and Gail took in a game of golf nearby, and then the Ostrowski family headed down to the Homossassa Wildlife Preserve to watch a few hundred manatees up close and personal in the water.  For dinner we headed out to another local steakhouse, the Boathouse, where our server Wanda was almost as much fun as Faye last night!  What a blast we are having at dinner on this trip!  From there we headed back, updated the blog, and called it an early night.

For Sundays dive we are heading up to Ginnie Springs, to enjoy some more crystal clear water and explore some of the sights there, including there famous cavern, the Ballroom.  We stopped at Adventure Dive Center, picked up our tanks, and made the hour and a half ride up to High Springs.  Check in, grab some lunch at the deli there, and then we headed over to the Little Devil system.  There were quite a few cave divers out today, in spite of the brisk mid 50’s temperature, and they were smiling when they saw Lauren get geared up and head in to dive with us.  A few of them approached Gail with questions, and they were amazed to see her daughter enjoying herself in this sport – very cool!  We spent a good 25 minutes dropping into the fissure there, then Devile’s Eye and Devil’s Ear, before spending a little time enjoying the Santa Fe River.  We worked out back to the entry point, and poor Lauren was shaking like a leaf in the chilly air, but when I asked her if she wanted to call the second dive, she responded with a resounding “No!”.

OK, fair enough, we jumped back in the van, warmed up a bit, then drove around to the ballroom area, and got back in the water.  Her eyes really opened when she saw the entrance to the cavern, and the communication was clear to her dad – let’s go inside!!  And so we did, getting another 25 minutes of bottom time here in the 73 degree water, shooting lots of pictures, and just having a blast.  Lauren was still struggling with her ear clearing a bit, so she stayed in the upper portion, but Guy and Kyle both toured with me down to the spring inlet at 51 ft in the cavern, and both of them were surprisingly comfortable following me and squeezing through some minor restrictions inside.  They are great divers and perfect buddies for Lauren, and truly a success story for what IAHD-Americas is all about – bringing the sport to those far less likely to ever being able to enjoy it.

After our second dive, we headed back, enjoying the thrill of the Green Bay Packers kicking Bear butt in the playoffs while we drove.  We cleaned up and went out for one last celebration dinner, and the only disappointment of the weekend was the  failure of the NY Jets to show up for their game against the Steelers.  Oh well, there must be a limit on miracles this weekend!

Monday morning we packed up, I got dropped off at the airport, and the Ostrowski’s headed to Disney for part II of their adventure in the Happiest Place on Earth!  Mission accomplished in a big way!!

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