“Life can be challenging when you are paralysed from the neck down,” Anthony shares. He was paralyzed in 1986 in a car accident at just 6 years old. “Since then, I have survived with artificial ventilation and 24 hour attendant care,” he explains.
“So it was with intense feelings of fear and excitement, and a stubborn determination not to let my disability hinder me, that I set off to visit one of the seven wonders of the natural world, the Great Barrier Reef.”
Adapting to a new environment
Anthony’s trip was the epitome of well-planned and well-prepared. He arrived extra early to the airport to ensure he and his gear were accounted for. His carers assisted him into his seat, using an aisle chair for their flight to Cairns. He endured the tight squeeze of economy and “after collecting a clapped-out 1980s van from the only car hire firm in town with a wheelchair-friendly vehicle, I was ready for action,” he shares.
“We spent two days acclimatising, counting sunbaking crocodiles along river banks and enjoying treetop views of the famous Daintree Rainforest from gondolas dangling high over leafy canopies,” Anthony explains. “But this was just a tropical warm-up for the main event – snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef, which I had been hanging out for since leaving home.” The day of snorkelling arrived. He was lucky to have perfect weather conditions and an uneventful, yet beautiful boat ride out to the reef.
“This was the moment I had been longing for, yet suddenly my heart began pounding, I felt a surge of adrenalin, and an overwhelming feeling of panic. I was scared. I had never done anything like this before. Frantic little voices in my head kept screeching: 'What if something goes wrong? What if sea water gets past the tracheostomy tube I use to breathe, fills up my lungs and I drown? What if the people carrying me, drop me and I sink to the ocean bed? What if the phrenic nerve pacer, the machine that helps me breathe, stops working underwater and I suffocate? What if? What if…?'"
Anthony was very aware of the risk for someone snorkelling in his situation, so they took every precaution. “The stoma (opening in my neck) was tightly sealed with medical dressings and tape to prevent sea water pouring in and drowning me,” he explains. “My phrenic nerve pacer was placed in a tightly sealed Esky to prevent water rendering it useless and cutting off my air supply. Finally, I was fitted out in a bright red wetsuit and face mask, so my skin and eyes would not be exposed to salt water and a snorkel.”
Taking the plunge
Despite the precautions, it was still undeniably frightening for Anthony as he sat on the boat. “My inner being was shaking like a leaf. Scared beyond reason, I pondered whether I could survive squillions of litres of seawater entering my lungs, or how on earth the dressings and sticky tape protecting my tracheostomy tube could withstand the pressure from that volume of water,” he explains.
Four crew members from the boat and two of his nurse attendants lifted him onto the snorkelling platform. “I sat anxiously on this precipice…before taking the terrifying plunge into the great unknown,” he shares. “Lowered into this submarine environment by six tightly gripping helpers, with only my head and the Esky carrying my breathing lifeline above water, I found my face only centimetres from an alluring, bright blue abyss.”
And like that, his head was dunked under for the first time. “I coughed, spluttered and gasped in terror. It was bloody torture. If my body could verbalise, it was screaming in protest! It, nor I knew what was going on,” he explains. After a few more dunks, “I felt myself beginning to acclimatise and surrender to the underwater world of calm and serenity I suddenly found myself in.” And with that, he started snorkelling!
“All of a sudden I was feeling a sense of being at one with this awesome, living, breathing environment. My fear soon dissolved among the shoals of brightly coloured tropical fish and spectacularly fluorescent coral that is the Great Barrier Reef.”
And yes, he’s ready to do it again!
There is bound to be anxiety when it comes to pushing one’s comfort zone, but don’t let it stop you from exploring your passions!