Some 20 years ago, after a tough skydiving landing left her with a broken ankle, Beth Dreiker agreed to take a scuba certification course with a coworker. Exploring the underwater world might provide a low-impact way to exercise her adventurous nature, she thought. After a rough start—her certification dive took place in the freezing waters of Gloucester, Mass., and an overinflated dive vest made it difficult to take a deep breath, triggering a panic attack—she took to it like, well, a fish to water.
Now, Dreiker, an RN on the open-heart team at Broward General Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is happily living where she can “dive and wear flip-flops all year long.” When she’s off-duty, Dreiker shares her passion and lends her nursing skills to SUDS (Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba), assisting instructors on trips where vets wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan get certified to dive.
Many of the soldiers return home with injuries so severe that they have to spend a couple of years in the hospital, explains Dreiker. That’s where SUDS comes in. Its team offers to teach scuba diving to anyone who wants to try it in the occupational and physical therapy programs at Bethesda Naval Hospital, pending medical approval. After passing “basic training” safety skills in a pool near their hospital (clearing their masks underwater, removing their regulators, demonstrating neutral buoyancy), the veterans are treated to a mini-vacation in Florida, Puerto Rico, St. John, Curacao or Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for five days of certification testing.
Working with SUDS “is the best thing since ice cream,” says Dreiker, who has the logo tattooed on her lower back. “First, when you meet these guys [there are women on some of the trips, but Dreiker has never had one on hers], they are so grateful and appreciative that you’re taking the time to be with them—that makes it all worthwhile.” But she’s also rewarded with the chance to experience the wonders of underwater life through the eyes of the vets, many of whom have never been in the ocean before. “When we get them underwater and they touch their first stingray, their eyes open wide, they light up with joy—and the feeling you get is absolutely priceless.”
The vets learn—as she did all those years ago—that for the injured, exploring the underwater world offers more freedom of movement. “They love being in the water, where there’s no pressure on their wounds,” says Dreiker. The trips also offer an incredible bonding experience. Long after they leave diving paradise, the soldiers continue to share the ups and downs of recovery and readjustment with fellow vets who’ve experienced similar injuries. Dreiker keeps in touch, too, through Facebook and, whenever she can, in person. Last June, she went to her nephew’s graduation—her brother just happens to live in the same small town as one of the SUDS divers she assisted. Wondering how the vet was doing, she called and they went out for a couple of drinks…and they will again.
Having a supportive, flexible team at her hospital who are willing to work around her schedule has allowed Dreiker to make 11 diving trips with SUDS. “These soldiers have gone through so much…sacrificed and put themselves in harm’s way, never thinking of the consequences, all to protect us, total strangers, so we can go to sleep every night feeling safe and waking up free. Now it’s my turn…to thank them.”
Will she continue to spend her time off from the hospital with SUDS? “I wouldn’t stop—ever,” she says.