Atlanta, GA,
08:00 AM

Shepherd Center to Launch Campaign to Prevent Diving Injuries

Hospital embarks on a mission to reduce the single most preventable cause of spinal cord injury.

As a party was ending one evening in August 2012, 27-year-old Chase Jones, of Atlanta, dove into the pool for one last time before leaving. He awoke floating face down with no recollection of what happened. And when he realized he couldn’t move, he wondered who would help him.

“It was a surreal moment,” he said. “I was shocked and scared, and then I blacked out again.”

A friend found him on the bottom of the pool and the host, a former Army paramedic, gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation before an ambulance took him to a nearby hospital.

After surgery to stabilize fractures in his C-4 to -6 vertebrae, Chase was transferred to Shepherd Center and spent the next five months undergoing rehabilitation and learning to navigate life in a wheelchair.

Unfortunately, Chase’s story is all too familiar at Shepherd Center, which is why the hospital is launching a diving injury prevention campaign this spring.

In the past 10 years, Shepherd Center has treated 161 patients with diving-related spinal cord injury. Eighty-nine percent of them were male, and 92 percent of them were under the age of 40. During the summer months, diving injuries among teenagers and young adults are twice as common as auto accidents.

“I hate to see kids come in who are paralyzed for life,” said Herndon Murray, M.D., medical director of the Spinal Cord Injury Program. “And diving is low-hanging fruit when it comes to prevention.”

Bridget Metzger, director of injury prevention and education, said the campaign will include posters and signs, magazine ads, a social media video and perhaps a radio spot, as well. Although Georgia and metro Atlanta are the primary targets, an accompanying online social media campaign will take the message worldwide.

“We want it to be out when the pools open and people start going to the beach on Memorial Day weekend,” Metzger said. “We want to have an aggressive reach for about a month and then try to maintain a social media aspect throughout the summer. The whole point is to raise awareness that these injuries do happen, and they are so severe and so preventable. We get very passionate about this particular cause of injury.”

The campaign follows three years of statistical research and interviews with focus groups comprised of diving injury patients.

“We interviewed kids and asked them, ‘How did you get hurt?’ and ‘What did it feel like when you hit the bottom?’ and ‘What did it feel like when you couldn’t breathe?’” Dr. Murray said. “What we found is something you could call ‘Proven Ways to Break Your Neck by Diving This Summer: Dive Off a Dock into a River, Dive into a Swimming Pool, Dive into a Wave at the Ocean, Dive Off a Rock into a River.’”

Dr. Murray gave a presentation at the International Spinal Cord Injury Society convention in Istanbul in fall 2013 emphasizing that “diving injury is the single most preventable cause of spinal cord injury.”

His presentation included a photograph taken in summer 2012 of 11 teenagers in a Shepherd Center therapy gym. All were paralyzed and in wheelchairs, and all were injured diving.

“Diving is what teenage boys do,” Dr. Murray said. “Each summer, it’s like an epidemic. We expect to see male teenagers and young men up to the age of 29 at the hospital, and the most likely cause of their quadraplegia is diving.”

One patient broke his neck diving into a swimming hole where he’d been diving for years.

“He made an error in trajectory and hit the side of the hole,” Metzger said. “People don’t think about hitting the side of something, but the body is a torpedo. If you hit the side, it doesn’t matter if the water is 50 feet deep.”

Dr. Murray believes young people should be taught that diving is a high-risk activity. "We specifically need to teach kids at a young age not to do it, like wearing a helmet when you ride a bike," he said. "And we need to teach young men not to dive into waves. Any single wave can change your life forever. We have a moral obligation to keep these kids from getting hurt. If we can prevent one kid from being paralyzed for life, it’s worth it.”

The strongest form of prevention, he added, is seeing someone who has been injured diving.

“Kids remember the speaker in a wheelchair long after they remember what they said,” he said. “Kids telling their story is a more powerful thing than hearing it from a doctor like me.”      

Chase Jones has told his story a few times, and he noted that until he broke his neck, he’d never had an accident, never even broken a bone.

“It’s difficult to describe how traumatic and life-changing this is,” he said. “I trusted my judgment, and it surprises me to this day that I’m paying this kind of price for that lapse.”          

Written by John Christensen
Photos by Louie Favorite

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.