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Aquarium Dive Safety Officer Helps with Groundbreaking SCUBA Study

Claire A.'s avatar


Monday, May 23, 2011


Everyone who works at the Aquarium of the Pacific loves our location in downtown Long Beach on the waterfront. We usually have beautiful SoCal weather and there are always awesome animal friends to hang out with. But I can’t think of one of us who wouldn’t drop everything at the chance to spend two weeks in the Cayman Islands representing the Aquarium, helping with a study to advance scientific knowledge, and diving in the amazing tropical waters of the Caribbean.

Assistant Dive Safety Officer Eric Castillo did all those things this month when he participated in a pilot study conducted by the Cody Unser First Step Foundation (CUFSF). Cody Unser, whose father is race car driver Al Unser Jr., is currently a student at George Washington University and founded CUFSF in 1999 after developing transverse myelitis, a paralyzing and sometimes fatal spinal cord inflammation, in sixth grade. Eric first met Cody when she came to Long Beach to become the first diver with a disability to dive at the Aquarium during our annual Festival of Human Abilities in 2009.

During the trip, doctors from Johns Hopkins University and the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at the Kennedy Krieger Institute conducted the first-ever study of the neurological, psychological, and pulmonary effects of SCUBA on individuals with paralysis. The subjects of the study were ten veterans with disabilities selected through Paralyzed Veterans of America. CUFSF and its Operation Deep Down SCUBA Instructor Team wants to scientifically measure the efficacy of SCUBA as an activity-based therapy that benefits people with disabilities. A noble effort, indeed!

Ten divers with disabilities, paired with ten dive buddies without disabilities, completed neurological and psychological evaluations with the investigators, followed by SCUBA training and open water diving. Eric was paired with Chris Sullivan, whose goal was to complete Handicap SCUBA Association (HSA) B-level certification. Chris is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, where he survived a gunshot wound to the neck. “To think these guys went into a war zone and got injured and now we are helping them to achieve something they never thought was possible—it’s really an amazing thing,” Eric says.

As Cody said in a statement when the study got approval to go forward, “We have known for quite some time that SCUBA benefits people with paralysis through movement in a neutrally buoyant environment, not to mention the empowerment and confidence realized by achieving your open water certification.” Cody is pursuing a major in bio-politics and is working with lawmakers to make stem cell research a priority in the United States. She hopes the results of this research will someday allow her to walk again. Cody discovered SCUBA after becoming paralyzed and was thrilled to discover a new kind of mobility underwater.

Eric reports that all ten veterans achieved their certification, including Chris. “His dexterity limits the use of his appendages, but his heart and desire overcome any obstacle set in front of him,” Eric says. “He did great! I was very teary-eyed after our dive, but I never showed it!”

Eric was also pleased to see the benefits of SCUBA in action. “With such a large group there are bound to be students of all levels, some motivated and eager to start, some a little apprehensive about diving,” he says. For one disabled diver in particular, as days went by, he went from being pretty anti-social and unmotivated to associating more with the group and completing his training on his own dime after the others left the islands. “That was the purpose of our study, and it worked! To watch that unfold right in front of my eyes was probably the coolest part,” Eric says.

Aquarium Dive Safety Officer Helps with Groundbreaking SCUBA Study
The group poses for a photo after the fourth open water dive. Pictured are Cody Unser, center, with her boyfriend Beaux; Eric Castillo standing just left of center in the back row wearing his Aquarium of the Pacific baseball cap; and Chris Sullivan, on the left in the green shirt.  | CUFSF
Aquarium Dive Safety Officer Helps with Groundbreaking SCUBA Study
Eric (left) and his student Chris on Chris's first-ever open water dive. After hitting bottom, Eric checks with Chris to make sure he's doing OK.  | CUFSF

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