by Alex Lichtblau
Before I begin this post, a quick disclaimer. I try to keep my stories short and sweet, but this one deserves a bit of extra attention. It communicates the story of one of the most influential experiences of my recent diving career, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed living it.
Cozumel Dive Dreams
I recently returned from guiding a group through a week of diving in one of my favorite dive destinations... Cozumel, Mexico. Prior to the trip, I communicated with the group leader about their desires and needs, and got them organized with the dive package that fit them best. The manifest included 8 divers and 2 non-divers. One of the non-divers would spend her week lounging by our AirBnB’s infinity pool, and the other, a veteran ex fire department rescue and recovery diver, would not dive based on recent medical issues and would also busy herself doing nothing but relaxing for the week.
Medically Fit to Dive?
Upon arrival to our house, our local dive operator Blue Project visited to fill out paperwork, fit divers for rental gear and collect personal gear for set-up on the dive boat the next day. During this meeting Melanie, the ex firefighter, approached me and the dive operator representative to fill out paperwork, despite not being included on the original manifest. Once she had filled out the RSTC (Recreational SCUBA Training Council) Medical Statement and we saw the affirmative answers to a number of questions on the questionnaire denoting a health issue, we had to deny her any diving until she could consult a doctor with diving knowledge. She seemed crushed knowing that her health had potentially compromised her ability to dive. She argued that dying while diving would be a great way to go. Did I mention Melanie has a mean sense of humor?
Rescue and Recovery Diving
It’s important to understand Melanie’s background in order to grasp the complexity of the situation. Melanie worked as a firefighter in Colorado for many years, and headed the dive rescue and recovery team. She coordinated and executed many rescue and recovery dives, and says mostly her job was searching for dead bodies in the bottom of swirling, dark, and very cold rivers somewhere in Colorado. As you may imagine, this was not a leisurely or pleasurable type of diving.
Melanie and her wife Tiffany frequently travelled to Mexico, specifically Cozumel and the Riviera Maya, to see the lighter side of diving and indulge their passion for the ocean. Then, Melanie was diagnosed with stage 4 follicular lymphoma, a severe form of blood cancer. She battled the cancer with chemotherapy and sheer will. After an arduous fight, Melanie was able to cease chemotherapy and had been in remission for six months prior to our trip to Cozumel.
Hyperbaric Medical Clearance
Although Melanie’s oncologist back home in Colorado had given her a verbal go-ahead for diving before the trip, unfortunately he had not signed a medical release. Melanie understood and appreciated our stringent policy on safe practices. The other thing to consider, which Melanie noted herself, was that her oncologist gave the okay, but may not have fully understood the implications of diving and hyperbaric situations on her condition and treatment. Therefore, we all agreed that a visit to one of Cozumel’s dive specialty physicians, or hyperbaric specialist, was appropriate and necessary prior to getting in the water.
The rest of the group started their week off with two days of spectacular diving, including an encounter with an enormous loggerhead turtle and an eagle ray. Melanie hung tight, biding her time by the pool until the doctor could see her. On the second day of diving, the doctor was able to see us for a consultation. I accompanied Melanie to the doctor, and she even asked me to come with her into the examination room. After a thorough review of her treatment, and cross-referencing that information with other resources, the doctor felt comfortable signing her release. I saw tears well up in her eyes, and felt them in my own as the doctor handed over his approval.
I immediately contacted the dive operator to accommodate Melanie on any remaining dives we could, despite the boat already being full. To my elation, we were able to acquire a larger boat and make space for Melanie for the following day. I would give Melanie a refresher course, and then accompany her for the first dive as her private divemaster to make sure her re-entry into diving went as smoothly and safely as possible.
Back In Her Element
The next day, Melanie and I thoroughly reviewed equipment set-up, pre-dive safety checks, basic diving skills and hand signals before getting into the water. Despite not diving for 10 years she breezed through the refresher, having extensive experience in diving conditions much less hospitable than the warm clear water of the Caribbean. We could barely keep her in the boat on the way to the dive site. As soon as our captain signaled for her to back-roll into the water, she was already mid-air, falling back into a place that had once given her so much joy and wonder. In the water, we practiced a number of basic dive skills, and then we glided off in Cozumel’s famous current to explore the dive site.
"Going diving helped me so much! It filled a huge void in my life, thank you! I think the last time I was diving (other than in a pool) was in a river looking for a dead body! Glad I never have to do that again! You helped bring back an amazing part of my life that I wasn't sure I would have again!" - Melanie
Life Lessons from a Diver
I watched Melanie throughout that dive, and never in my life have I seen someone so in their element, and so at peace. I watched as passing critters caught her attention. I watched as more tears of joy filled her mask. I watched her regulator barely remain in her mouth for her beaming smile. I watched someone reclaim a part of their life, and I felt a wave of pride wash over me for being part of her comeback.
I learned a great deal from Melanie. She taught me firstly about strength and power of will. She also taught me about passion, and how to enjoy every minute of life. I owe her for helping to reinvigorate me, renew my passion in diving, revive my faith in people and redefine my idea of what is possible. She is a role model not just for me, but for everyone, diver or not. If she can survive what she did, and still strive to find light in her life, then we all can. We all have our fight, and part of what helps us win is to keep what you love in front of you.
by Alex Lichtblau
I first dived in the Galapagos in 2011. It inspired in me an unmatched passion...the ocean. Since then I've travelled the world, diving, exploring and building my own dive travel and dive instruction business, Inside Under Dive & Travel. To learn more about me and my passion, see my bio. Also, learn more about dive certifications and courses, or going on a dive trip with me.