Tag Archives: diving

Diving Deep: Learning to Stand, Snorkel and Reclaim a Sense of Self

Theo St. Francis has been exploring the world of body-connection since his 2013 C6 spinal cord injury at the start of his Mechanical Engineering studies at MIT. Having been opened to a whole new way of being through his practice of Pilates, he is working to make mindful movement a standard in neuro-recovery.

He has been fundraising with Help Hope Live for intensive physical therapy and cutting-edge rehabilitation since June 2014.


What would it feel like to be able to just jump – and start flying? Well, I don’t know, and the birds won’t say, but I’ll bet the experience would be indescribable, and ‘indescribable’ is something I know.

Since my body has been partially paralyzed for almost three years, it is understandable that I’ve forgotten what some things feel like. That’s how our plastic, use-it-or-lose-it brains work: the subconscious patterns of walking and standing, of dancing without thinking, don’t get reinforced when the muscular connection isn’t present.

This is part of the overwhelming feeling of loss that accompanies a paralyzing injury to the spinal cord (SCI) because, in some ways, one’s sense-of-self fades with the loss of those patterns. When the physical manner by which you relate to the world is changed, the emotional nature of that relationship is changed as well.

Theo St. Francis Help Hope Live diving

“One’s sense-of-self fades” with the loss of familiar physical patterns


A flash…


One day in May, I noticed something strangely familiar during my regular 3-hour neuro-Pilates workout. We prepared to use a trapeze table, or trap table, a piece of Pilates equipment with a wooden bar hanging by springs from a frame. For some time my trainer and I had been stumped – I had developed feeling in my hip muscles while kneeling, yet when on my feet, my system turned off.

trapeze table Pilates

An example of a Pilates trapeze table

On that afternoon, we incrementally raised my knees on foam wedges until my feet were on the floor; with my hands on table-uprights, the vertical bars at each end of the trap table, and an arc blocking my knees, I lowered myself into a squat and, for the first time ever, pressed back up to standing!

“Wow, so this is what it feels like to connect to my legs!” was my first thought, and after the third unsupported squat, I felt a visceral excitement and had a fleeting image of letting go of the trap table, turning toward the door, and just walking outside. It was as if my body just remembered its own capability. Can you imagine? It was glorious. Indescribable!


Progress has been from many directions


Since my injury in Boston Harbor in August 2013, I have received care from experts in hospitals, rehab centers, SCI CrossFit gyms, Eastern medicine enclaves, and Pilates studios. I’ve learned from a variety of therapists with different but overlapping skills and set up equipment in our home to extend workouts throughout the day and evening. I feel very fortunate to have found the talented members that comprise my rehabilitation team.

Throughout this extensive process, the unflagging assistance of my family members has been invaluable. Their efforts– from the early days in the hospital to working with the medical staff and learning the techniques that would help me in daily activities to seamlessly managing logistics until I could do so myself–have been essential, both in the acts themselves and in the time and space they’ve created for me to pursue my therapies with rigor.

Also significant in my recovery, has been working with the Neuro-Kinetic Pilates specialists on Maui. In my most recent sessions there this June, I was able to find my own lateral hip strength in a stagger-stand position. I have been working to achieve this stability since I first muscularly connected my torso 18 months ago. It is immensely satisfying to finally achieve this result.

Theo St. Francis Help Hope Live rehab

“It is immensely satisfying” to regain physical ability at any level after injury

While all of this bodily improvement was happening, something even more significant occurred between my sessions: independence…in two ways.

For the first time really ever, this 21-year-old lived completely by himself. In truth, it was for less than a week – friends and family visited me on the island at other times – but, even so, after all I was told by doctors about the purported permanence of my paralysis, to be able to thrive on my own was a turning point in my recovery.

I am quite aware that this independence has only been achievable through the incredible support of so many over the last few years, especially all of those who have helped me and my parents with fundraising and driving to therapy appointments. My family is sincerely grateful for the support of so many people through Help Hope Live that make it possible for me to pursue the most effective recovery treatments. This sense of wonder for the gifts of support is also indescribable.


Diving deep


The second form of independence was very different. The day I fractured my C6 vertebra was less than a week before my first practice on MIT’s Varsity Swim Team, to which I’d been recruited as a backstroker. Even with all my progress since, I still require a hip-float to stay above water. That’s fine; except when I was in Maui swimming above scores of fish, coral, and turtles along the reefs 10 feet below. There was no way I was going to forgo some of the world’s premier reef-level snorkeling by being bound to the surface. Confident in how my improved core strength enabled me to control my breathing, I unclipped the float, handed it to my friend, and madly used my arms to fight the saltwater’s buoyancy. After some practice, I became comfortable descending over 20 feet and, on my last day on the island, I swam floatless for a full 40 minutes.

To me, going floatless is about far more than being eye-to-eye with Reef Triggerfish. It’s about stripping away the support I think I need to discover my true abilities, and in so doing, rediscovering that sense of self. It’s about diving deep into a fear, a perceived limitation, and returning to the surface with new appreciation for what is possible.

Through these moments of ecstatic, indescribable joy I can happily see that this truly may be the beginning of the final stage of my overcoming.

Theo St. Francis Help Hope Live smile

Theo pursues and relishes “moments of ecstatic, indescribable joy”


Last fall, Theo St. Francis presented his first workshop and co-wrote a textbook on Pilates for SCI with his trainer, Stephanie Behrendt, and they plan to expand the curriculum (zebrafishneuro.com for more). Theo has also found his home regimen to be vital in giving him space to explore, so he is developing an at-home protocol for individuals who have endured a spinal injury to understand their bodies in new ways. He absolutely intends to return to MIT when he feels his body is ready. Connect with him on his website, Facebook (fb.com/THEOvercoming1 or personal), and Instagram.

5 Unforgettable Facts About Diving And Spinal Cord Injuries

“The only safe dive is the one you never take,” claimed an infographic from Shepherd Center. Is it true that diving puts you at risk? How serious is the connection between diving and spinal cord injuries?

July is the number one month for diving injuries by a wide margin. Here are 5 facts you need to know to keep yourself and your loved ones safe.


Fact 1: Diving is the fourth leading cause of paralyzing spinal cord injuries.


According to Shepherd Center, diving makes the list of the top five causes of spinal cord injuries with paralysis. 89% of individuals who get hurt diving are male and 11% are female. Most individuals who are injured are between 20 and 29 years old.

Shepherd Hospital SCI Dive Accidents Poster


Fact 2: There are multiple ways to sustain an injury while diving.


There are multiple ways for a dive to end in injury or paralysis based on the location and structure of the spinal cord. The severity of disability depends on the level of the spinal cord where the damage occurs.

The vertebrae of the spine, separated by intervertebral fibrous discs, protects the nervous system’s spinal cord. It is possible to damage the spinal cord by injuring the vertebrae and discs or by injuring the spinal cord itself. “Severe damage to the cord and nerves emerging from the vertebral column will cause paralysis,” reported WHO.

Neck Injury Under Wave rotational Neck Injury Under Wave Verticle Compression & Hyperflexion

A user forum on Apparelyzed highlighted some of the many ways that diving can lead to a life-altering injury:

“My husband dove into a pool on Labor Day weekend. He is a C4.”

“My spouse dove into a sponge pit. He is now a C5/6.”

“[To me] dives must include anything headfirst, whether it be into lakes, swimming pools, the sea, trampolines or bouncy castles.”

“I made a conscious though foolish decision to launch myself from my patio roof into an above ground pool ten feet away. It was a calculated risk that turned ugly. C5/6 anterior incomplete, with all the bells and whistles.”

“I dove into a surfboard. C7 complete.”

Dumped on the seabed by a huge wave…C4/5 complete.”

“When you swim competitively, you dive into the pool at the shallow end from a racing block. I was goofing around and dove too deep and hit the bottom.”

“I dove off a 70-foot-high cliff and was fine. Then I dove into a shallow area (of water) from about 6 to 7 feet and hit the sand on the bottom, fracturing my spine at C5/6.”


Fact 3: Water can be deceptive, even if you are a good judge of depth.


Many individuals who sustained a spinal cord injury from diving echo the same lament: “I thought I had good perception skills. I thought I could trust myself to stay safe.” The truth is that water often appears to be deeper than it is, which can lead to devastating errors of judgment even for experienced swimmers and divers.

HelpHOPELive diving safety

Even experienced swimmers can misjudge depth

“The physics of what happens is unforgiving, as a diver can enter the water at 15 feet per second. Most of these accidents occur in water that is less than 3 feet deep,” explained Dr. Robert Bohinski in a PSA from Mayfield Clinic. “These accidents [are] completely preventable.


Fact 4: A single dive can alter your life forever.  


In 2014, Dillon Connolly was swimming with friends when he performed a simple dive from one area of the water to another. Storms had created a sandbar beneath the water, and the impact shattered Dillon’s C5-C7 vertebrae. What followed was “the longest year of Dillon’s life,” explained girlfriend Kerry Sheridan. “Immediate surgery, nearly a month of intensive care, three months of intensive physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and lifestyle adaptations.”

Dillon Connolly HelpHOPELive

Dillon shattered his C5-C7 vertebrae while diving

Dillon explained that being an experienced swimmer isn’t enough to protect you from a dive that can severely alter the rest of your life. “I swam my entire life competitively,” he explained. “It even paid for college. I broke my neck diving into a wave where the sandy bottom went from deep to too shallow. I tell everyone I meet who asks what happened to never dive unless you can see the bottom, and to tell their kids and friends, too.”

Dillon Connolly HelpHOPELive

Dillon with his girlfriend, Kerry, and dog, Reef


Cole Sydnor was 16 when a diving accident left him paralyzed from the chest down. “The average person may not understand the extent to which our injuries affect us ‘behind the scenes,” Cole explained in an interview. “Most people…are never exposed to what it takes for [us] to shower, dress, use the restroom, etc. Those are the hardest parts about living with a spinal cord injury.”

Cole Sydnor HelpHOPELive

Cole was 16 when he became paralyzed from the chest down

To add to the physical and emotional challenges, spinal cord injuries can come along with a host of pricey out-of-pocket expenses. “Any medical expenses deemed unnecessary by insurance fall on my family and it becomes their responsibility to make those purchases,” Cole explained. “My elevator, room and bathroom renovation, and truck were all expenses that our community rallied to help fund.”

Cole Sydnor HelpHOPELive

Cole’s community “rallied to help fund” his out-of-pocket needs

Today, Cole and his family are vocal advocates for swimming and diving safety with the No What UR Divin’ N2 campaign. “I’ve been able to raise awareness about spinal cord injuries and spread a message about the importance of diving safety to youth in my community,” Cole said.

Cole Sydnor HelpHOPELive

Cole and his family are now diving safety advocates


Jeff Granger Harris broke his neck diving into the ocean in 2007. “He ran in to jump over a wave like me and him had done 20,000 times,” explained Jeff’s brother, Greg. Jeff hit his head “at the right angle, at the right speed, at the right tilt of the universe” and became paralyzed. “Anything you’re used to doing, you can’t do anymore in Jeff’s situation,” noted Greg.

Jeff Harris HelpHOPELive

Fundraising helps Jeff expand his mobility options

Jeff will face lifelong physical and financial challenges because of a split-second dive. “This is the only life that I have and I’m going to make the best of it. HelpHOPELive allows you some of that ability through fundraising,” he said. Fundraising has helped Jeff to bridge the gap between what insurance will cover and what he needs for a fulfilling and engaging life.

Jeff’s incredible story will be highlighted in an upcoming video from HelpHOPELive. Subscribe to our YouTube channel today and be among the first of our followers to see it!

Jeff Harris HelpHOPELive

A new video tells Jeff’s story


Lauren Shevchek had been swimming competitively for over a decade. At age 19, she dove into a pool and fractured three cervical vertebrae. She lost feeling from her chest downward.

Lauren Shevchek HelpHOPELive

Lauren was a competitive swimmer before her diving injury

Lauren worked through months of inpatient rehabilitation to regain some of her independence. She is beginning to recover some feeling beneath her injury site, though she mostly only experiences those sensations as pain. As her mother, Janice, explained, “We have learned to celebrate any sensation, including pain, as a sign that things are reconnecting.”

Lauren and her family speak publicly about the dangers of diving in order to reduce the number of diving-related injuries. Janice explained why she is a vocal advocate for diving safety. “Teens in particular are shocked when I mention that paralysis is not just about walking. It’s about losing your ability to urinate and move your bowels on your own,” Janice said. “Once they begin to understand, they will never forget how devastating the injury is.”

Lauren Shevchek HelpHOPELive

Lauren speaks publicly about the dangers of diving even as an experienced swimmer


Fact 5: You can make a difference.


You have a responsibility to keep yourself and your loved ones safe from preventable diving-related spinal cord injuries. Here are a few things you can do right now:

  1. Educate yourself about safe behaviors and share what you learn with your loved ones.
  2. Always swim with a lifeguard.
  3. Enter water feet first, even if you do not plan to dive.
  4. Don’t dive at all to maximize your chances of preventing injury and paralysis.
  5. Take the Feet First Pledge! Save and share the graphic below or share it via Facebook or Twitter.

HelpHOPELive

“Have the conversations,” urged Janice Shevchek. “Share Lauren’s slogan with kids: ‘If you can’t see through it, don’t dive into it.‘ Never dive headfirst into water you can’t see through, no matter how experienced you are. And don’t ever act on a dare or try risky stunts. The consequences just aren’t worth it.

HelpHOPELive Clients In The News March 2016

Spring is a season of hope, renewal and rebirth. For these three clients, spring represents a chance to enjoy a healthier, happier future with help from community fundraising.


Scott Truran: Veteran Sets Sights On Treatment For Debilitating MS


Thirty-nine-year-old Scott Truran was diagnosed with a progressive form of multiple sclerosis in 2011. Before the diagnosis, the former Marine was very active and prioritized staying in shape. Today, he has to rely on a cane to walk and his right side feels like it’s been “dipped in concrete,” he explained.

Scott Truran HelpHOPELive veteran MS

Scott will continue to lose mobility as his MS progresses

Scott will continue to lose mobility as his MS progresses. It’s likely he will eventually need a wheelchair to get around. Scott and his family learned about a treatment option for MS that may help to limit Scott’s mobility losses. The treatment involves wiping out his immune system with low-dose chemotherapy, then using stem cells, previously harvested from his blood, to rebuild a new immune system. This treatment option is only available as a clinical trial in the United States. Scott and his family will need to raise $80,000 to receive the treatment in Mexico as well as additional funds to offset the out-of-pocket costs of travel and temporary relocation for Scott and a caregiver.

Scott Truran HelpHOPELive veteran MS

Scott is appealing to his community for support for his treatment goals

“The money is the biggest obstacle,” Scott explained, “but it’s a small price to pay for a chance to slow [the] disease or stop it entirely.” Scott will fundraise with HelpHOPELive to maximize his chances of securing the funds he needs to potentially halt or reverse the progression of his MS. (Veteran’s family asking for help with progressive form of multiple sclerosis)


Theo St. Francis: Young Man With Spinal Cord Injury Plans “His Comeback”


In 2013 while taking part in a pre-orientation at MIT, Theo broke his C6 vertebra in a diving accident. Theo became paralyzed from the chest down with some shoulder and arm movement and limited finger dexterity. Doctors told Theo he would likely never walk again.

Theo St. Francis HelpHOPELive

“I am done managing. I am overcoming.”

As the Sonoma Index-Tribune reported, Theo “set his brilliant mind toward devising a plan for his comeback.” In December 2015, Theo reached a major milestone when he was able to sit on a barstool during a celebration with friends. He tries to spend time away from his manual wheelchair, pursuing activities that “align with what my goals are,” from driving an adaptive car to biking, skiing, surfing, kayaking and traveling.

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Fundraising with HelpHOPELive is allowing Theo to pursue the intensive spinal cord injury therapies he credits with helping him improve his mobility over time. Theo emphasizes the word “recovery” and spends his days looking forward. “I put the impossible in quotes,” he explained. “I am done managing. I am overcoming.” (Theo St. Francis overcoming odds to regain mobility)


Michael Mahan: Community Supports Man Facing Intestine Transplant


In 2012, what Michael Mahan and his family believed to be an upset stomach turned out to be a dangerously twisted small intestine. Since doctors removed the failing organ, every 6-8 weeks, Michael ends up back in the hospital with septic blood. With no small intestine to help his body process food, the husband and father of three relies entirely on intravenous nutrition as he waits for an intestine transplant.

Michael’s priority today is raising funds to cover the out-of-pocket expenses associated with an intestine transplant and follow-up care. He may need to spend up to 10 months in a transplant center after the procedure, and the cost must be paid up front before he can be put on the transplant waiting list.

Michael Mahan HelpHOPELive

Michael is a husband and father of three

Fundraising with HelpHOPELive is helping Michael to secure the funds he needs to get the transplant, but it’s also connecting his family with their supportive community. “We’re just so excited to do everything we can to help him out,” said local resident Jon Rosenlund. “He is a wonderful man and a great father. It’s an honor to help him, but we need a lot of help.” (Fundraiser to benefit man awaiting intestinal transplant)


Get your campaign in the news! If you need help with press releases and media outreach, contact your HelpHOPELive Fundraising Coordinator today.