May 6, 2016, Chasity McCulloch and her husband, Wes, went scuba diving to celebrate their third wedding anniversary. Wes, a Marine stationed in Okinawa, had been deployed and had just returned home. For their celebratory dive, the couple traveled two hours to Kouri Island, where they planned to explore the wreck of the destroyer USS Emmons, sunk in the Battle of Okinawa.
“Okinawa was our first duty station,” recalled Chasity. “We had gotten into snorkeling when we moved there, and then we got our diving licenses and we had done quite a few dives. This one was going to be bigger—130 feet down. Before that, I’d gone as far down as 95 feet.”
Chasity and Wes did a practice dive off Kouri Island, down to about 90 feet, in preparation for the deeper dive. “The next morning, we met with the dive instructor and a few other people,” Chasity said. “It was pretty chilly, so we put on extra layers underneath our wetsuits. We made it down 130 feet and it was amazing. We explored the back half of the ship. Then we were going to come up, take a break, and go back down to see the front half of the ship.”
“We were headed back up from that first dive and something happened with my mask. I kept trying to clear it, but it wasn’t clearing. I couldn’t breathe well, and I felt like I was drowning.
I decided to get out of the water. You’re supposed to take a five minute break at 15 meters down to get the nitrogen out of your body. Otherwise you can get the bends when the bubbles go to your joints. My nitrogen bubbles happened to go to my spine and compressed it. That caused pressure on my spine and nerve damage.”
Chasity was taken to the US Naval Hospital in Okinawa, which did not have experience dealing with diving accidents, so she was sent to another base where she spent many hours in a decompression chamber designed to get nitrogen out of the body. From there she was medevac’d to Naval Medical Center San Diego. “In San Diego, they started treating me for a spinal cord injury.
After three weeks of rehabilitation, Chasity could barely sit up. “I didn’t have any movement from the waist down, but they said I was done and they were sending me home. My husband didn’t think that was a good idea, so he arranged for me to get into the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where I did a month of inpatient treatment and four months of outpatient treatment.” During some of this recovery period, Wes was able to stay with Chasity, but he had to leave for North Carolina in August to check into a new unit based out of Camp Lejeune. In December, Chasity was cleared to move to North Carolina to join her husband.
That’s when Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society visiting nurse Donna Fischer met the family. “I called Chasity in January to introduce myself and offer help,” Donna recalled. “I tried to figure out what she really needed.” At that point Chasity was relying on her husband or friends to take her to physical therapy and doctor’s appointments. Donna suggested that she could help Chasity get a car modified so she could drive it.
“I helped Chasity apply to a program that supports people who have disabling athletic injuries,” Donna said. “They paid for her driving lessons and to have adaptive equipment installed in her car. We got her driving and she passed her driver’s test. When you’re in a position like that with no family nearby and your husband may be deployed, you can’t be so dependent on other people. We helped give Chasity some independence.”
“There’s still quite a bit I can’t do, but I do a lot,” Chasity said. “I use two different types of braces to get around and to stretch, and an FES [functional electrical stimulation] bike which stimulates muscles to keep me from losing muscle mass and possibly help my nerves regenerate. I use a treadmill and I box to help with balance.”
“I do a lot of therapy and try to do my best on everything. I ride my bike and I try to work out so I can get better with my balance. Sometimes I’m kind of lazy and get tired of doing things. It takes 30 minutes to set up the bike, and then you’re supposed to ride for an hour, and I’m supposed to walk for two hours. It’s hard to do it all in one day.”
Chasity’s day also includes volunteer shifts at the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society New River office. Before the diving accident, Chasity loved volunteering but didn’t know where she might volunteer in North Carolina. Donna suggested Chasity try the Society. “I typically work the front desk and am in training to do casework in the future,” Chasity explained. “It’s great to get out of the house and interact with the wonderful people there!”
Donna also connected Chasity with the Semper Fi Fund, which enabled Chasity to buy a special vest to connect to a treadmill so she could exercise. Semper Fi also worked with Donna, Chasity, and the Chicago Rehabilitation Institute to secure an FES bike for Chasity to use at home. Donna also helped Chasity apply for Social Security disability.
“Donna comes in and helps with everything,” Chasity said. “If I need anything, she helps. She finds programs and services that will benefit me, like getting the hand controls in my car. Even if I just need someone to talk to when my husband’s gone, she’s there. Donna is really great. She does everything she can for me.”
Chasity can feel sensation in her legs and is able to wiggle some toes. Her injury is classified as a non-traumatic incomplete spinal cord injury, which means that it’s possible she could recover some control of her muscles. “We hope for the best and will see what happens,” she said.
Supporters like you make it possible for Society visiting nurses to be there when Sea Service families need assistance.
By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso