Peggy Domitz, who was paralyzed a decade ago, has traveled to Bonaire, Grenada, Cozumel and other locations through the scuba diving programs of Diveheart, a Downers Grove-based nonprofit group.
Her world doesn’t have to stop: Scuba diving offers new opportunities for people with disabilities
Updated 9/21/2023 11:35 AM
When Peggy Domitz is underwater, anything feels possible.
Paralyzed from the waist down for more than a decade, the 63-year-old discovered scuba diving in 2019 through Diveheart, a Downers Grove-based nonprofit group using underwater therapy to build confidence, independence and self-esteem in children and adults with disabilities.
“It’s so beautiful and fascinating down there,” she said. “Just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean your world has to stop.”
Tinamarie Hernandez, the executive director of Diveheart (https://www.diveheart.org/), said people with disabilities from around the world have enjoyed similar experiences on their scuba diving trips.
Diveheart was founded in 2001 by Jim Elliott, a Downers Grove native who has been diving since 1976. Inspired by his daughter, who was born blind, Elliott began his work with adaptive sports as a volunteer guide for blind skiers.
While Diveheart has an outreach center in Downers Grove, the bulk of the work is accomplished in local pools and exotic settings. Organizers plan a handful of trips each year to destinations such as Cozumel, Grenada, Roatan, Bonaire and Bimini.
Not only do Diveheart experts conduct scuba diving training for the adaptive divers, but they also train the volunteers guiding them. They’ve actually trained teams from as far away as Malaysia and Borneo.
The excursions have become immensely popular. Hernandez said she wasn’t able to fill previous December trips until only weeks before. This year, the 40 adaptive diver spots were filled in April.
Domitz has made about a half dozen trips since 2019. In January, she might return to Grenada.
“Nothing hurts down there because of the atmospheric pressure,” she said. “It’s the only place I can get that kind of physical activity and move every part of my body.”
Domitz became paralyzed in 2010 after an awkward fall on her tailbone required surgery. During what was supposed to be a routine outpatient procedure, her spinal cord was nicked, and she never walked again.
Domitz had partial use of her legs. But using crutches badly damaged her shoulders, and she’s now in a wheelchair. For the first five years, she attempted to walk again. Since then, she’s turned to various adaptive sports.
When she tried scuba diving — she dove in Cozumel only a week after completing her training — she became hooked. She sees amazing sights underwater, using her legs in zero gravity and feeling better physically.
“We’ve had a lot of breakthroughs for people because they get to see themselves standing for maybe the first time,” Hernandez said. “They get to maneuver themselves by themselves. When you’re underwater, the possibilities are endless.”
Veterans with PTSD and people with autism, vision and hearing problems, cognitive disabilities and traumatic brain injuries are also taking part in Diveheart’s scuba diving training.
Diveheart trainers work with about 20 divers once a month at the Oak Lawn High School pool. They sometimes use pools in Racine, Elgin and elsewhere.
Most of the money raised goes toward insurance, upkeep of scuba gear, pool programs and trips. But Diveheart officials are about to embark upon a fundraising drive to build the world’s deepest warm water therapy pool.
It’s a costly endeavor. But Hernandez said the benefits are worth it.
“We have seen a lot of intriguing and interesting things happen in the ocean, with pain relief and the output of serotonin we think there is,” she said. “But it’s at depth. It’s not at 12 feet deep or even 40 feet. It might be 60 feet. We need a pool that can accommodate that type of research.”
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