By Michilea Patterson, The Mercury
LIMERICK >> “On land they’re handicapped. In the water, they’re just like anyone else.”
These are the words Hilltop Diving founder Jim Hoser, of Schwenksville, used to describe the feeling of freedom his students get from taking his adaptive scuba diving classes. On Friday, the Adaptive Diving Association partnered with the Spring Valley YMCA in Limerick to host a lesson at the facility’s indoor pool.
Hoser has been teaching the adaptive classes for about 33 years. His students include amputees, paraplegics and those in wheelchairs. He said it’s not about adapting the students but the equipment. Hoser analyzes each student and their specific handicap then creates specialized equipment that allows them to be mobile under water.
Hoser became interested in adaptive diving after he had an accident from a hospital CAT scan that left him in a wheelchair for six years. He enjoyed diving before his accident but found it difficult to find associations that would allow him to continue after he was wheelchair-bound. It was another accident of a fall down the stairs that corrected Hoser’s previous injury. He said it “did what the doctor said could never be done” which was allow him to walk again. The experience led him to establish an adaptive diving training association.
“We’re the oldest organization in the word to be training people with that given handicap (wheelchairs),” Hoser said.
Now, Hoser not only makes it possible for the wheelchair-bound to scuba dive but also others with different handicaps. In 2014, Chrissy Kaestle became the first female quadruple amputee to scuba dive. Hoser was the one who trained her and continues to do so.
Because of equipment designed by Hoser, Kaestle with no arms or legs was able to move underwater on Friday at the Spring Valley YMCA. In 2012, Kaestle had a kidney stone that led to multi-organ failure and sepsis. She was then given vasopressors to increase her blood pressure.
“It chemically does what your own body does when it’s freezing to death. It takes all the blood from the extremities and drives it to the core,” said Stephen, Kaestle’s husband.
Kaestle had a five percent chance of surviving. Stephen said the vasopressors saved her life but as a result she lost four of her limbs.
Less than a year after Kaestle’s surgery, she started training for scuba diving. She said her first experience was wonderful.
“It was like being free and being a little fish,” Kaestle said.
Beth Kase is another quadruple amputee that joined the adaptive diving class on Friday. She said she’s able to float in the water and that it helps to take the pain away.
Hoser said both women have adapted to scuba diving quickly.
“Both of them are powerhouses. Both of them could teach the energizer bunny new tricks,” He said.
Frank Hicks, 66, lost his leg during Vietnam but still has a passion for adventurous activities which is why he started scuba diving. He said he used to jump out of airplanes.
“So that mentality for me is that I have to be active,” he said.
Hoser also trains children in his adaptive classes. He said children that have been in wheelchairs all their life are naturally scared of the water but he entices them with games like a basketball that dribbles underwater.
“They come up. They’re giggling. They’re laughing. They’re screaming … Nothing’s better than that,” Hoser said.
Hoser plans to continue and expand his work in the adaptive diving field. The Adaptive Diving Association is now a nonprofit organization. Hoser said he hopes to get grants that will help him continue building a 40-foot deep diving facility he’s building in Schwenksville.
“It will be the only facility in the world designed from the ground up for the wheelchair-bound,” he said.
For more information about Hilltop Diving and adaptive scuba diving instruction, visit the website hilltop-diving.com or call 610-287-7270.