17 December, 2015

LIFE can be challenging when you are paralysed from the neck down and just about every move you make is in a wheelchair.

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.

Supported by an entourage of carers and a minibus load of equipment, I made sure I was ready for the drive to the Melbourne Airport, the obligatory two hours ahead of most able bodied passengers. This allowed me the extra time required to check-in the wheelchair that is my constant companion and the essential gear that travels with me.

As usual, I had to swap 'Old Faithful', my regular wheelchair, for a slim line model that negotiates the plane's narrow aisles, before my carers hoisted me into my seat for the flight to Cairns.

Sandwiched between Cattle class seats that resembled a vice squeezing me into submission, I toughed it out for an endless three and a half hours before our flight touched down. 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.

We spent two days acclimatising, counting sun-baking crocodiles along river banks and enjoying treetop views of the famous Daintree Rainforest from gondolas dangling high over leafy canopies. 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 in Kensington.

The big day arrived. A beautiful 32ºC, bright blue sky and not a breath of wind, perfect conditions for snorkelling. With two carers, I arrived at Cairns Reef Fleet Terminal to board the tour boat that would take us to the reef.

We spent two hours cruising past tropical islands before reaching the big pontoon floating in the tourist heart of the reef. Now it was early afternoon and time to experience snorkelling.

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.

My mind was racing like a Formula One Ferrari. 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...?

Snorkelling in the ocean for the first time can be scary for anyone and for different reasons, so let me put this into context.

In 1986 my life changed forever when I was just six years old and a car accident left me paralysed from the neck down, and unable to breathe without assistance. Since then, I have survived with artificial ventilation and 24 hour attendant care. The risk for anyone like me snorkelling is enormous. So this holiday adventure was fraught with danger. Anything and everything could go wrong.

Every precaution was taken to ensure nothing went awry. The stoma (opening in my neck) was tightly sealed with medical dressings and tape to prevent sea water pouring in and drowning me. 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, which I think was all but useless, as a way of breathing underwater.

My time had come, or had it? 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.

Too late, I was on my way. Four crew members from the day tour boat and two of my nurse attendants helped lift me down the steel steps and on to the snorkelling platform on the pontoon.

"The first time my head was dunked under, 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."

I sat anxiously on this precipice – the last link with life as I knew it, before taking the terrifying plunge into the great unknown and a seemingly bottomless chasm. The sheer magnitude of so much water making me feel even more vulnerable; like I could be swallowed up!

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. This was it, the point of no return, or so I thought.

The first time my head was dunked under, 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. Two, three, four more deliberate dunkings – I lost count after that – and, as if by magic, I felt myself beginning to acclimatise and surrender to the underwater world of calm and serenity I suddenly found myself in. Nirvana, I couldn't get enough of it!

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. I was living and breathing this moment.

I will definitely have to do it all again.

Anthony Bartl

Tags: Blog, Travel & Leisure