Cure Medical: Christopher Block Finds Freedom in Scuba Diving

Christopher Block Finds Freedom in Scuba Diving After SCI

Cure Medical

The CURE NATION blog often shares stories of people exploring their world after spinal cord injury to help encourage others on the same path to choose their own adventure too! We knew the minute we met Christopher Block, a C5 quadriplegic, at the Chicago Abilities Expo that his journey would also motivate so many people who dream of conquering the high seas. Read on below to discover how scuba diving changed Chris’ outlook on paralysis and more as he adjusted to life after spinal cord injury.

Christopher Block Got ON THE FAST TRACK TO RECOVERY at Shirley Ryan Ability Center

Christopher Block is 33 years old and lives in a suburb of Chicago called Highland Park. He was injured three years ago attempting a bicycle stunt in a friend’s backyard, breaking his neck at C-5. “They didn’t tell me the brakes were disabled,” he tells. “I had a helmet on but that didn’t help. I went over the ramp and head-first into the muddy bottom of the pond below.”

“I’ve been doing everything I can to get my independence back ever since.”

Chris was sent to Shirley Ryan Ability Center for rehab where he’s been working hard to get his life back. Transfers have been one of the most difficult obstacles for Chris, just as it is for most quads. He’s had four bicep-to-tricep and forearm-to-thumb tendon transfer surgeries to try to gain more strength in his arms and function in his hands.
Chris credits Shirley Ryan Ability Center with much of his recovery after SCI.

Chris credits Shirley Ryan Ability Center with much of his recovery after SCI.

“It’s the bed transfer that I’ve been working on the most,” he says. “I can get in it but getting out is almost impossible. It is impossible with a soft mattress.”
Chris Shares His Fitness Secrets as a quadriplegic

“The best two things I’ve found, in my personal opinion, since being injured to help me stay in shape is a rowing program out of Spaulding Rehab and my standing wheelchair,” Chris reports.

“The rowing machine I have is for quads and paras and uses E-stim for your legs while you row with your arms. You can really get a good workout with it and get your heart rate up. That’s not easy for quads to do,” he explains. “When I can I try to use it every other day, and I use those Active Hands gloves to keep my hands on the handles.”

“As a quad, I feel that rowing has been the best thing for getting my core muscles stronger, and the E-stim keeps my legs in better shape.”

“The other thing I use a lot is my stand-up wheelchair,” Chris continues. “I have a Permobil F5 and I try to get up for at least 45 minutes every day. The doctors told me that’s ideal for my bones. I know it helps my digestion too.”

Chris also gets on the back of a horse once a week, thanks to a program called Equestrian Connection only twenty minutes away from his house.chris enjoys horse therapy too”I basically hold on for dear life,” Chris says while laughing. “One of the therapists there just picks me up and puts me in the saddle.”

“They walk beside me the whole time though so it’s safe. It’s supposed to give your body that walking motion it’s missing, and it only costs $25/week for a half hour of riding, and they do a great job for people with all kinds of disabilities.”

“When I was inpatient at Shirley Ryan, I picked up a flyer one day about this scuba organization called Diveheart,” Chris recounts.

“There was a cute girl on the cover which caught my attention too. I actually got to know her later. Anyway, they were having an event where anyone could come try it out so I went — and I loved it! It was in a swimming pool but being in the water, I felt so comfortable and the weightlessness was amazing. I could move around with so little effort.”

Read the complete article on Cure Medical website.

Download a PDF file of this article

Programs Offer Watersports Training To Disabled Veterans

Programs Offer Watersports Training To Disabled Veterans

By Sherrilyn Cabrera & Gerard Albert III
WRLN Miami, August 2019

The ocean is a significant part of life in South Florida. But for many disabled veterans, accessing the water is not always easy.

It took Army veteran Don Bickham three years to learn how to sail a boat. Unlike most newcomers to sailing, he couldn’t rely on his eyes.

Bickham’s cataracts began to affect his sight when he served in the Army during Vietnam. When he returned from combat, he underwent a botched surgery that resulted in him losing almost all of his sight. Now he can only partially see from one eye.

Since becoming legally blind, Bickham lost the ability to drive and depends on others to take him around. Learning to sail was a way Bickham could gain some independence, and now he teaches sailing classes to beginners. He has since taken on other sports like biking, fishing and hiking. Bickham was introduced to the watersports organization Shake-A-Leg almost five years ago through veterans affairs.

“Before I would say, ‘well, I can’t see that, I can’t do that,'” said Bickham. “But now I may not be able to see it, but I’m going to say, ‘Let me try.'”

In South Florida, veterans with physical disabilities and mental disorders like PTSD, depression and anxiety can find it difficult to participate in activities such as diving, snorkeling or sailing. Even a simple trip to the beach can be a strenuous task.

Programs including Shake-A-Leg in Coconut Grove and DiveHeart in Palm Beach give veterans the chance to learn watersports and eventually teach the sports to others — including other veterans.

The Shake-A-Leg organization was founded in Miami in 1990 by Harry Horgan. Partnered with the city of Miami and veteran affairs, the group helps the disabled, veterans and their families. DiveHeart is a nationwide organization, with branches in Atlanta, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Shake-A-Leg sailing instructor J.P. White, a retired Navy veteran, said that leaving combat and then returning to society can be difficult. “You really feel like you don’t fit in,” White said.

“But when I’m out on the water and I’m sailing, I do fit in, I do understand the rules, I do recognize how things are supposed to work,” White said. “It was something I could identify with when I did get out of the military.”

Army veteran Sharmaynne Thomas has been taking sailing classes at Shake-A-Leg for two months. Her service dog named Lady — a large, white, long-haired American Bulldog — joins her on every trip.

While in the Army, Thomas was in a Jeep accident that left her severely injured. She broke her shoulder, collar bone, hip, both knees and both ankles. She has since recovered from her physical injuries, but still has lingering mental issues and suffers from seizures.

Thomas often relies on Lady to help her leave her house.

“That’s hard because I’d rather be inside where I can control, than be outside and be fearful,” she said.

But when she’s by the water and with other veterans, Thomas said she feels at peace.

“Just something about the sea, something about the ocean, it’s like your mother. You know, like when she rocks you, it feels the same way,” said Thomas.

She said she hopes to eventually become an instructor, so that she is able to spread that same peace to others.

Almost two hours north of Shake-A-Leg, at Palm Beach’s DiveHeart, veteran Larry Yates practices his scuba diving.

Yates has non-combat-related spastic paraplegia and is unable to move his legs. He has been in a wheelchair since he left the Army over 20 years ago. But with the help of his instructor and Marine veteran David DeChant, Yates has practiced diving in a swimming pool. Recently, he dove in the ocean for the first time.

“He’s been working with me for two years and he teaches me everything,” Yates said. “It’s relaxing to have someone that knows what they’re doing and not afraid to work with you. A lot of people, when you’re in a wheelchair, they don’t want you anywhere near them.”

DeChant meets Yates almost every Saturday to train and he is preparing him for his next dive in the keys.

As a former Marine and instructor, DeChant believes other veterans can be healed by the ocean and that getting them into the water can help save their lives.

“To see them touch the sand for the first time or see sharks, or numerous fin fish that are there, or coral, and to see the smiles on their face — it’s just incredible,” DeChant said.

Read the complete article (with audio) at WLRN website

Dive Right In | Comcast Newsmakers – Diveheart’s Tinamarie Hernandez

Dive Right In | Comcast Newsmakers – Diveheart’s Tinamarie Hernandez (video)

Diveheart is a nonprofit tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization. The purpose of Diveheart is to provide and support educational scuba diving programs that are open to any child, adult or veteran with a
disability, with the hope of providing both physical and psychological therapeutic value to that person.

We’ve discovered the forgiving weightless wonder of the water column provides the perfect gravity-free environment for those who might otherwise struggle on land. Underwater, everyone is equal.

Diveheart works with individuals who have a variety of disabilities, including physical and developmental disabilities, vision and hearing impairments, amputations, traumatic brain injuries, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and more.

Diveheart seeks to help its participants “Imagine the Possibilities” in their lives.

View article & video here.

Adaptive Scuba Program Empowers Disabled DC Kids

Adaptive Scuba program Empowers Disabled DC Kids (video)

WUSA-TV 9, Washington DC

Diveheart and it’s many skilled volunteers work to build confidence, independence and self-esteem in children, adults and veterans of all abilities through adaptive SCUBA.

The goal of the program is to help people of all ages with disabilities realize their capabilities and overcome any obstacles they may face.

Diveheart is a non-profit organization. Great Day Washington’s Andi Hauser traveled to Key Largo, FL to bring you the inspiring story of these four children from the Washington DC area.

View article & video on WUSA-TV9 website here.

Diveheart: We Are All Equals Under the Water (video)

Diveheart: We Are All Equals Under the Water (video)

WUSA-TV9, Washington DC

Great Day Washington reporter Andi Hauser travels to Wakefield High School pool in Arlington, VA to learn how Diveheart, an adaptive scuba program is changing lives.

The goal of the program is to help people of all ages with disabilities realize their capabilities and overcome any obstacles they face in life.

View article & video on WUSA-TV9 website here.

On the Mark: Diveheart’s Ron Rispoli

On the Mark: Diveheart’s Ron Rispoli

Hinsdale Magazine, June 2019

Diveheart recreational therapist Ron Rispoli eyes 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo

Each month Diveheart Organization spotlights incredible volunteers in Hinsdale Magazine.

By joining the Diveheart team, you will become part of one of the most innovative nonprofits in the diving world. Diveheart relies on the participation and donations of people like you to support our adaptive diver programs. Your involvement is valuable regardless of whether you are on the surface, underwater or just spreading the word. Please support Diveheart, share the Diveheart story, and come join us at an event. We are about you!

As a recreational therapist, what benefits to yo see specifically from scuba therapy for your students?

Any activity can have therapeutic benefits, as it is based on each individual person and their perceived mastery of the activity. What I believe sets scuba diving apart from many/most activities is that, 1. most people with or without a disability do not participate in the sport. Only one percent of the world’s population scuba-dives. Right there, the diver with the disability is participating in an activity that 99 percent of the world does not. 2. Unlike land-based sports and activities, scuba- diving allows for weightlessness to take over. For most of my students who have grown up sitting in a wheelchair, they are constricted by the laws of nature, meaning gravity takes over. Most of them have to use wheelchairs or walkers to ambulate. They have limited or no ability to use their legs. And depending on the disability, they may have limited or no movement of their arms as well. Scuba-diving allows these same individuals to get free from their wheelchairs or walkers, and experience a gravity-free environment. They get to float underwater, and very often see their legs and arms move freely for the first time.

I previously mentioned the phrase “perceived mastery.” If you or anyone perceives that they are good at something, especially something that they enjoy doing, you or they will continue to do it. So if someone enjoys scuba-diving, they will continue to do it. And they will become more skilled as well. This perceived mastery only increases their self-worth and self-esteem. It also encourages them to try to do more. I can honestly tell you that I had a very shy student, who in high school P.E. class was told to sit on the sidelines and cheer the others on. After getting involved in scuba-diving, this “shy” student has ventured out of her comfort zone, and has gone on to get involved in more activities. In addition to diving, she is the lead volunteer at her local hospital for the past five years.

What are the parallels between archery and scuba, if any?

The parallels between adapted archery and adapted scuba, better yet archery and scuba, is that with some adaptations or modifications, almost anyone can participate in either sport. And this goes for most sports in general. With a little tinkering here or there, every sport can be made accessible to anyone with a disability. Diveheart has trained a young lady with no arms to be a scuba diver. One of the best Paralympian archers that I know also has no arms and shoots his bow using his feet. If there is a will, there is a way! As I previously stated I grew up playing able-bodied sports.

I did not use or did not need any adaptations…until I took up archery. And with one small adaptation, mouth tab attached to my bow string, I am now shooting with my contemporaries. I only wish that I would have done this sooner. I am currently shooting with some of the best adapted archery shooters in the world. My goal was to compete in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan next year, but as I said, I’m shooting with some of the best archers in the world. I have learned that there is still more work to be done. My goal as a Diveheart Board Member and volunteer, my goal as a person with a disability, is to educate others and let them know that they don’t have to sit on the sidelines and cheer others on, that with some slight modifications that they too can participate in scuba diving, or any activity that they choose.

Read the complete Hinsdale Magazine article (pages 62-63)

Download a PDF file of this article

A Plunge of Faith: Diveheart’s Gabe Spataro

A Plunge of Faith: Diveheart’s Gabe Spataro

by Louis Carlozo, Fra Noi

A Plunge of Faith

Half a century after enshrining a famous Italian statue of Christ beneath the waves of the Gulf of Mexico, blind diver Gabe Spataro proves himself to be a source of inspiration.

Christians hold dear the unwavering belief that Jesus reigns over all the realms of Earth: land, sky and sea. As tributes, be- lievers have reverently placed monuments around the globe, from sea level skyward, including the 125-foot-tall statue of Christ the Redeemer that tours half a mile above Rio de Janiero on Mt. Corcovado.

As for the briny deep, statues of the Lord are much harder to find. Encountering Christ beneath the waves is a rare occurrence indeed. Pursuing him through the curtain of sightlessness is rarer still. Which is what makes the story of Gabe Spataro so incredible.

A Korean War veteran now 87 years young and legally blind, Spataro paid tribute to the Christ of the Deep statue off Key Largo by diving to meet it in 2015. The journey brought him full circle, as he played the lead role in placing the statue off the coast of Florida on Aug. 25, 1965. Without him, the statue would never have found its home 20 feet underwater, where it stands today covered in fire coral, its arms still outstretched in otherworldly triumph to welcome the countless divers who come to visit.

Spataro shared with Lou&A the story behind the statue — also known as Christ of the Abyss — and his role in negotiating its long trip from Italy.

Lou&A: Tell us about your Italian roots.

Gabe Spataro: My father came here when he was 16 years old from Sicily and went to work on the railroad. In World War I, he went into the Army and came out as a corporal — he was very proud of that — and became a citizen of the U.S. My mother came here when she was three, and they settled in a Sicilian neighbor- hood in Chicago. But my father told me growing up that we were Americans, and we didn’t speak Italian in the house. And so I never did learn Italian. [Laughs.] He had a liquor store in Chicago on Diversey and Central and went to New York in 1942 to visit a friend who was making pizza. He came back and changed the bar into Sparga’s Pizzeria. I was 12 years old when I started making pizza; I’ve lived with pizza my whole life.

Lou&A: You served in the Korean War as a supply sergeant. How did you dis- cover scuba diving when you returned?

Spataro: When I came back from Korea, my two brothers and I bought a sailboat. I became a member of Columbia Yacht Club in 1956, and we took turns: Two guys would go sailing and one would stay back and manage the restaurant. I met a couple in the restaurant, and they said they were going out on a picnic and planned to scuba dive, which I’d never heard before. So they took me to Lake Geneva. Being underwater with the fish was amazing, and I remember being down there for 30 minutes, but I had to come up for air — I didn’t know how to breathe underwater yet.

Lou&A: The story behind the statue is fascinating and connected to an Italian diver. When did you first hear of “Il Cristo degli Abissi”?

Spataro: I went on a wine-tasting tour to Genoa; it was almost a fluke. I had lunch with Guido Gelletti, who created the statue. They’d put one in a harbor when the first Italian scuba diver died in 1947, Dario Gonzatti, and they put one in Portofino. They had a third statue and said, “Gabriel, we’re giving it to you, but you’ve got to get it back to Chicago.”

Lou&A: That must not have been easy.

Spataro: It was a beautiful bronze statue, but it was 9 feet tall and in a crate that measured 16 x 16 x 4, weighing several tons. And it needed to come 7,000 miles by water to Chicago. I’d always talk to my father about my problems, and he said, “We have a friend at the American Steamship Line. Talk to him and maybe he can help you.” When my father told him about the statue, the guy asked, “How can I help you get it here?” Seven thousand miles by water to Navy Pier, and it didn’t cost a dime!

Lou&A: So how did you get it to Florida?

Spataro: I was always talking to my customers about my problems, too — and one of them was a pilot in the Air National Guard. Then on a Saturday night in December with snow coming down and me in a tuxedo from serving a banquet, I get a call from some guys who said, “There are some men at O’Hare looking for a statue in an Illinois Air National Guard hangar.” They had a plane ready to fly to Florida. So we got out there to load it up, but the plane hatch was high off the ground and on an angle.

The statue caught a corner of the hatch and almost fell. One of the men with me said, “We almost crashed with Christ.” [Laughs.]

Lou&A: It’s incredible you never got to see the statue underwater. We understand the organization Diveheart played a key role in helping you return to the state for the 50th anniversary in 2015.

Spataro: Well, here it is 50 years later, and I’d developed macular degeneration: I can’t see, I can’t read, and I can’t dive. Then I found out there were six or seven disabled guys learning to scuba dive with Diveheart. And this group is setting up a dive for us to go to Cozumel. They spent $1,000 on my equipment: the fins, the tanks, everything. It was just a fantastic trip.

After I sent the statue down to Florida in 1965, I was never contacted. So until I went with Diveheart, I’d never heard any- thing about it. It’s such a popular attraction and such a big thing in Key Largo.

Lou&A: So what was it like to be in the statue’s presence after five decades?

Spataro: It was such a nice ceremony. A priest in Key Largo wrote a beautiful prayer, and I read the litany and took a wreath down. Another diver took a second wreath. I poured holy water around it from France and couldn’t look at it the statue straight ahead. But by moving my eyes I can see peripheral things. And honestly, being by the statue gave me a warm, comfortable feeling.

Lou&A: How has this statue inspired your own faith?

Spataro: So many people were involved — how else could the statue have been put there for so many people to enjoy? Who am I? Just a simple Sicilian boy who was trying to do some good in the world. It wasn’t just all Gabriel. And I really believe it was the Lord who made this all happen. He did all the work. I was just his little guy here on the land, that’s all.

Read the complete Fra Noi article

Download a PDF file of this article

SoCal Woman Celebrates Triumph Over Paralysis By Scuba Diving

SoCal Woman Celebrates Triumph Over Paralysis By Scuba Diving

By Kristen Lago, Spectrum News 1

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. – You wouldn’t think the anniversary of a life-altering injury would be something to celebrate, but that’s exactly what took place at the eighth Annual Adaptive Wheelchair Sports Festival.

The event is put on every year by the Triumph Foundation, and gives athletes from across Southern California the chance to triumph over their disabilities.

This year, Pasadena resident Norma Villar took part in the festival. She celebrated the five-year anniversary of a surgery that resulted in her paralysis.

“Ever since my injury, I’ve thought let’s just experiment life, let’s explore,” she said. “And I’m doing so many things that I never did prior to my injury.”

One of those things is scuba diving. In partnership with a group called Dive Heart, Villar got the chance to go under the water — to swim for the first time in years.

“I literally felt that I wasn’t paralyzed,” Villar explained. “For however long I was underwater, I felt free. I couldn’t believe I did this.”

It’s just one of many activities she’s been involved with through Triumph. But it was not an easy road to get here.

Five years ago, Villar began experiencing symptoms like drop foot and dizziness. After a few doctors visits, she was diagnosed with a congenital defect in her spine.

Although her surgeons reassured her it would be an easy fix, several back-to-back surgeries left her an incomplete paraplegic.

“I hated myself and I hated my life. I hated everything about what happened to me,” she said.

Fast-forward five years later and you’ll meet a very different Villar. She’s excited and determined to take on new challenges, inspiring others along the way.

“What I’m doing here,” Villar said, “is showing the newly injured people that life does go on and despite our circumstances we can conquer the world still.”

Read the complete Spectrum News article (with video)

Life-Changing: Diveheart’s Sarah Repka

Life-Changing: Gain a whole new perspective of volunteering with Diveheart’s Sarah Repka

Hinsdale Magazine
May 2019


The “Diveheart ripple effect” is used to inspire people of all abilities to “imagine the possibilities” in their lives. Sarah is the exemplification of this effect. She humbly takes the unrealized human potential that exists in people with disabilities, and she helps create a paradigm shift in the lives of children, veterans and others with disabilities. Her touch inspires them to transform from Johnny or Jane in the wheelchair to Johnny or Jane the scuba-diver. This new identity builds new confidence, independence and self-esteem, which helps them take on new challenges and helps them focus on what they “can do,” instead of what they “can’t do.” If Diveheart could clone Sarah Repka, and spread her love and caring nature, it would surely make the world a better place.

In retrospect, I was drawn, because my daughters were becoming more autonomous, while preparing to leave home for college, and I needed to fill the void created by their growing independence.

Read the complete Hinsdale Magazine article (page 68)

To read more about Diveheart and Sarah Repka, please visit