Thinking back to my childhood I recall playing the “what do you want to be when you grow up” game with other kids. My answer was always a resounding “mermaid.” The water has always been such a central part of my life having grown up in the Bahamas. When I broke my neck nearly 10 years ago, I couldn’t imagine how life would continue if I was unable to get back to the aquatic lifestyle I had become accustomed to.
When I was in the ICU and inpatient rehab the first few months after my accident, I was also battling a stage III pressure sore on my sacrum. I could not wrap my head around how I would ever get back into the water. I saw many other SCI folks start to dive back into activities in rehab, but I was not as fortunate. I was confined to bed rest all day, except for several hours of rehab, due to the raging pressure sore I had sustained during transport from the Bahamas to Miami after the accident.
While I stayed focused in rehab, worked on my computer, and made the best of my situation, I started to give up hope that I would ever get back into the water again. Once I was released from rehab and sent home, I kept asking my caregivers and my mom every day if my pressure sore was healing, and I kept asking wound nurses how long it would take. I didn’t know if I going to be able to get back in the water, but my family and I kept researching swim instructors anyway. Somehow, I held onto a glimmer of hope despite the mounting medical challenges I was facing.
Nearly a year passed before I was given the okay to be out of bed more than several hours a day and start swimming. We found a fabulous swim instructor, Hortensia Aguirre, who had experience with helping the disabled get back into the water. She changed my life in more ways than I can count, and I’ll likely never be able to thank her enough for what she has done for me and continues to do to this day!
I was so nervous at the thought of getting back in the water because my body was now paralyzed from the chest down, had no hand function, and had limited upper body mobility. I couldn’t envision how I was going to get my mangled body to cooperate so that I wouldn’t drown or just lay there floating in the water completely helpless.
I purchased every piece of adaptive swim equipment I could get my hands on, figured out how to get wiggle a bathing suit onto my uncooperative body, and meticulously planned with my caregivers how I was going to get lifted into the pool chair without falling over.
Swimming for the First Time
When I rolled up to the pool, I was met by the most welcoming smile and Hortensia looked at me and laughed with my giant satchel of swim equipment. She assured me I was not going to drown, I was absolutely going to learn how to swim unassisted without all the devices I purchased, and that we would take it one day at a time.
Naturally, I thought she was off her rocker for thinking I was going to be able to swim unassisted in the water, but I hesitantly put my trust in her hands. I’m an avid, and some would say borderline neurotic, planner, so to let someone take over something as important as making sure I didn’t drown was a mental hurdle I had to overcome myself.
Once we were in the water I held onto her with all of my limited strength and would not let go. She was kind, but tough (in the best way possible). She put me on my back and told me to just float, so I could feel the weightlessness of the water. It was in that moment that I was instantly hooked. I felt unencumbered by the weight of the wheelchair and realized that there was a serious pain reduction in my whole body. Many of my muscles were in constant pain from atrophying after nearly a year of being in bed, and now I had found some relief.
Most importantly, I felt free. I had not even learned to swim yet, and I might have looked like a paralyzed fish, but it was the best I had felt in over a year.
I was determined to learn to swim unassisted after only having been in the water for five minutes. Hortensia would roll me on my belly to put my face in the water to get me accustomed to the feeling of holding my breath. There were a few times when she let go and I started to panic, swallowed what seemed like a gallon of water, but she quickly came to my rescue. I think the most important part of learning to swim as a quadriplegic is having an instructor who gently eases you into the feeling of holding your breath, and not panicking.
The first order of business was to make sure that if I was in the pool and in any unsafe situation where I was face down, that I would be able to roll myself over for safety. We called this “the log roll”. This took many weeks of trying to wiggle my body around and roll from my belly onto my back for safety. I distinctly remember after several weeks in this training, I just could not figure out how to make my body work for me and I had almost given up. Then, one day I suddenly rolled over and I had no idea how I had done it. I just rolled over. I was like a kid running through sprinklers in the middle of a hot Indian summer. I had a smile from cheek to cheek and I was ready for the next challenge.
We then moved on to different strokes. First, I learned how to propel my arms forward with my face in the water while simultaneously using the resistance of the water to pop my head up for a breath of air. We practiced this for months. I would propel myself forward underwater for several strokes, but when I needed a breath of air and couldn’t pop my head up, I had the safety of “the log roll“, which created a physical and mental safety net for me.
This video will help you to better understand all of my swimming techniques:
Despite the amount of medical problems I continued to face, I was able to get into the water three times a week with Hortensia. Slowly, and I mean very slowly, I found myself swimming unassisted. It was only when Hortensia could simply walk next to me in the pool as I swam that she let me try a few of the adapted swim devices I had purchased. At that point I didn’t need them, but I can understand why many do.
Hortensia is excellent at understanding people’s level of comfort in the water. She could see I had a burning desire to be able to swim by myself, so she pushed me, harder than others I imagine, because she could tell I was ferociously determined to get what I wanted! I probably didn’t need to swim with Hortensia after a year, but I enjoyed her company and she was always pushing me, just like a swim coach ought to.
End of My Swim Career?
Unfortunately, two years after my accident I developed a large cyst in my spinal cord and I had to move to China for surgery. This was the end of my swim career, or so I thought! I spent nearly three years living in China, dreaming of the days when I swam in Miami.
In 2015 I moved back to Raleigh, North Carolina, which meant that if I was going to swim again, it was only going to be in the summer months. Unfortunately, fate did not have swimming in store for me just yet. Yet again, I developed a stage IV pressure sore which left me in bed for nearly 1 ½ years and required multiple surgeries on my tailbone. I pretty much gave up hope, but in the summer of 2017, I had finally healed from my surgery.
I had not swam since 2013, so I was naturally nervous to get back to the water, and to do it without Hortensia seemed impossible. My mom, sister, and caregiver all helped me roll into an indoor pool near my apartment. My sister and mom were hovering nearby to make sure I didn’t drown, which was a smart idea. To my shocking surprise, the moment I got in the water I was swimming! I suppose it’s like riding a bike; the muscle memory had stuck with me over the years. I was a little wobbly in my rolling and swim strokes, but after about two sessions I was back at it like I had never left. Life, once again, seemed a little brighter that day.
Since 2017 I have been swimming every weekend during the warm months, and then daily in October when my husband, my mom, and I head to Miami for the month. In Miami I spend most of my time in the pool, basking in the sun, catching up with Hortensia, and participating in any water activities I can. I’ve been boating in Key Largo, surfing in Carolina Beach, and I even went snorkeling in Mexico when we were on a cruise. I hope the adventures don’t stop there.
I’ve also learned a few things of my own. Temperature control is particularly challenging with a spinal cord injury, so I try not swim in water any colder than 83°F. This is precisely why I love bathing in the sun after being submerged in the water for so long; I’m like a reptile who just can’t absorb enough heat.
After 40 minutes of laps in the water, I like to lay on floaty toys and sunbathe for as long as the day, or my husband, will allow before he literally has to drag me out of the water like a child.
Whether swimming is your activity or not, finding an activity that brings you an ounce of joy while dealing with the daily ins and outs of spinal cord injury can really change your outlook on life. You may prefer adapted hunting, fishing, skiing, wake boarding, etc., but I believe finding your one “thing” is critical for your mental sanity.
If you find yourself in Miami, Hortensia still works with all different folks of different disabilities and I know she would love to work with you too. You can check out her website at www.internationalswim.com.
I’m very passionate about swimming. In fact, this past fall I created a professional swim video to help inspire my fellow spinal cord injury folks to get back in the water, or rediscover whatever they love to do! I hope you watch it, enjoy it, and take action. I always make time to help anyone who is looking to get back just an ounce of freedom after such a traumatic injury.
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