I had an interesting experience earlier this spring. Terry and I were on vacation doing what we enjoy most, scuba diving on the little Dutch Caribbean island of Bonaire. It had been a very nice week. We know many local people as we have been going there for the last 27 years. We have come to know the Catholic folks well (Bonaire is a very Catholic country), and enjoy worshipping with them at daily Mass. This year we were blessed to attend Ash Wednesday services at St. Bernardo’s Church.
Our dive resort was host to a group of handicapped divers, paraplegic and quadriplegic folks, confined to wheelchairs on land, but with the aid of their companion divers these folks are freed from the restraint of gravity as they enjoy the wonders of God’s underwater world. Terry and I enjoyed their company and tried to treat them as we would treat any other divers on our boat. Things were pleasant, yet there was some barrier I could sense between us. The second to last day I was struck with a case of Montezuma’s revenge. Well, that’s what they call it in Mexico; maybe this was “King Momo’s revenge”. Momo is the evil king on whom all the local folks put all their sins at the final Carnival parade and then burn him and all their sins on Fat Tuesday night, the evening before Ash Wednesday. I thought I was coping with it okay until I showed up for the afternoon dive. Things were going fine until my paraplegic acquaintance asked me if I could please hand him his fin gloves. I bent down, handed them to him, and promptly proceeded to pass out.
Well, the dive operation had already dealt with one heart attack victim that week, so I was given oxygen and whisked away to the local hospital. I was given an IV to rehydrate me. But you have to remember, this is a diving island. Doctor Miranda noted a rash on my torso and feared I might have a case of the bends. I have studied dive medicine for 30 years and knew the chances of my having bends were slim, but I also knew that sometimes a rash is the first sign of neurological decompression sickness that could leave me a member of the paraplegic or quadriplegic diving society. I had the special insurance to pay for such an emergency, and the doctor was insistent that I needed to go into the chamber. So I went. It wasn’t the piece of cake I expected. The old Dutch Navy Chamber was about the size of a large wine cask, and my companion, the Dutch chamber tender, was as big as me. To top it off, the oxygen mask that I had to wear didn’t have a high enough rate of flow to keep up with my lung capacity. I had to struggle for each breath. This went on for two hours until we decided I didn’t have the bends and they brought us up.
Bonaire is a small island, and it was gratifying to have so many of the local folks checking on me and asking how I was doing. But the most interesting thing happened the next day when I showed up at the resort. All of my handicapped acquaintances had become my friends. They were the people who went out of their way to see how I was doing, to offer their prayers and thanksgiving for my recovery. Somehow these divers, who have to daily humble themselves to accept the care and ministrations of their companion divers, saw in my “humiliation” of being carried off the dive boat a kindred wounded spirit.
How often we look upon our handicapped, elderly, and even little kids as an inconvenience, a thing to be feared, loathed, or referred. Maybe we should take the time to listen to them, talk to them, understand them, and even pray for and with them, for some day we may be “them”.
*Dr. Stein is Executive Editor of Northwest Dentistry. He is a general dentist in private practice in Aitkin, Minn., AitkinDent@AOL.com.