Scuba Diving aids recovery and offers hope to those with disabilities
Jamie Hull is no ordinary scuba diver. He is a leader in his field as a PADI dive professional and a fully qualified diving instructor with the British Army Sub Aqua Diving Association (ASADA), a special branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC). This in itself is not extraordinary, however, Jamie Hull is a survivor and a leader of the first order.
Jamie Hull is a former Trooper and Soldier in 21 SAS Regiment – United Kingdom Special Forces Reserve. A passionate advocate of the outdoors, Jamie was an avid mountaineer, cyclist and scuba diver.
Jamie had a dream to become a pilot and took to the shores of the southern US state of Florida to undertake his training. It was 19th August 2007 and the day could not have been more perfect. The sun was shining and Jamie was completing a routine solo flight under an azure blue sky. At 32 years of age, literally days away from completing his private pilot’s license, Jamie noticed a streak of flames outside the cockpit window. Something was not quite right.
A Matter of Life and Death
Composing himself he made plans for an emergency landing but quickly noticed the flames had breached the cockpit wall and were licking at his legs. Wearing only shorts and a t-shirt he knew he was in trouble. He was too far from safety and had to make a decision that would eventually save his life. That fact was not certain at the time as the circumstances indicated the opposite.
The plane was now in a rapid descent and Jamie was engulfed in flames, so in a moment of clarity Jamie maintained his composure and climbed out of the cockpit onto the wing of the aircraft.
The ground rushed by beneath him in a blur as the aircraft rapidly descended to earth. Waiting until the ground was only around fifteen feet away, he jumped at speed and rolled into the grass, enduring unimaginable pain as the plane exploded in a ball of flames nearby.
The result of his courageous, lifesaving leap of faith and hope was third degree burns to sixty percent of his body and six months in intensive care in the United States in an induced coma. Following repatriation to the UK Jamie was hospitalised for a further 18 months.
Years of excruciating rehabilitation, intense periods of depression and long periods of serious self-doubt preceeded recovery and revival.
In mid-2018 Jamie Hull visited Koh Tao to continue his professional development and dive training as a PADI professional. Jamie is training with Crystal Dive Koh Tao building his experience as a PADI Master Instructor in preparation to apply for the PADI Course Director Training in 2019.
PADI Course Director Matt Bolton, who has overseen Jamie’s training at Crystal Dive sat down with Jamie at the end of his recent visit to Koh Tao to discuss the trials, tribulations and how Jamie managed to overcome adversity to become an inspirational leader and mentor.
Matt Bolton (MB): If we go back to 2007, how did the accident affect you?
Jamie Hull (JH): If we go back to post-accident, the realisation of the gravity and the trauma of my injuries, 60% third degree burns, I lost belief in myself.
I did not believe that I was ever going to be fit enough to go back into the open water or scuba dive again, let alone becoming a PADI instructor and teacher. Because of the level of trauma, I never believed my body would allow me to participate in life again like I had before.
I had 61 surgeries over a period of six and a half years under general anaesthetic and I did not believe that I would ever experience scuba diving again. My skin was so dramatically burned it resulted in numerous complications with infections and hospital treatments. There was pain, there was suffering and consequently there was substantial psychological trauma as well.
I loved scuba diving, but at that early stage, so soon after the accident, scuba diving remained a distant dream. Something that I did in the past. The old me, the old diver had gone and I truly believed I would never experience that again.
MB: How were those first few years? Was recovery fairly swift, or a more gradual process?
JH: After the accident I was in a pretty bad way. The first part of my recovery was like the acute phase and that pretty much lasted for about five years. Five years of abject trauma and misery. I suffered from multiple infections for a solid three years which was followed by two years of home care from district nurses.
During that time my skin was far too vulnerable to entertain the idea of any kind of adventure in life, let alone immersion in water and the concept of scuba diving.
I suffered from pneumonia, septicaemia, which is effectively blood poisoning and I even had a period in America initially where my kidneys shut down and I was on dialysis for about three months. This was all a major trauma for a young man.
In the beginning my life as I knew it was over and I didn’t believe that I was going to bounce back. Indeed, surgeons initially only gave me a 5% probability of survival. And frankly over the years I kind of surprised myself that I was able to recover to the level of active health that I have.
MB: When it comes to scuba diving, was there a moment when you decided, « I will give it a go?. » What made you decide to try?
JH: Once I got through about the five year point there was a kind of slow, gradual change, a shift in consciousness taking place. It wasn’t a 90 degree sort of right turn, but rather it was something far more cryptic. It felt like a really slow, ironically almost like flying over the curvature of the earth. The turn was slow and gradual and sometimes barely noticeable.
After about five years I began to feel that my body was making some sort of progress. Physically it was such a slow process. While it was probably always progressing, the pace of change was barely noticeable that it was hard for my mind to comprehend.
But at around the five year point I started to feel a semblance of the old me starting to creep in again. The confidence began to return and with that an acute sense of motivation and hope. It was the first time after the accident that I felt my life was going to get better, that there were going to be new opportunities opening up in the future.
It was probably at that stage where I started to dream a bit more and I started to think, “okay so what’s next potentially. What could I do, where do I see myself and what possibilities could I take up once again?”.
At that stage I started to dream about the idea of scuba diving and that maybe in time, given some more improvement in the condition of my skin, I might be able to get back into the water.
MB: Once you had that feeling, what was the catalyst to make it happen?
JH: I had a been in touch with my former PADI Course Director, Teresa Simpson, originally from England. She used to run a PADI Career Development Centre (CDC) in Egypt, called Emperor Divers. That’s where I originally completed my PADI Instructor Development Course (IDC) and instructor examinations (IE).
We were chatting online and Teresa was asking how I was and how I was healing. Obviously she’d heard about my injuries and she casually asked if I’d thought about scuba diving again as a way to maybe have something else to focus on and help the rehabilitation process?
I immediately sparked up and said, “you know what, I had thought about it, I had sort of dreamed about it while in the hospital bed”, but it just wasn’t a reality in the early days after the accident. But by 2012 my perspective had shifted slightly and I was open to the idea of exploring these sorts of opportunities.
Teresa said, “anytime you want to come back you can join on one of our liveaboards as a guest and at your own pace, just try it, see how you get on.”
The idea of going back into the UK water was far from appealing. Not only the cold but the thought of a dry suit and the incumbent weight, I felt it would be too stressful on my body. I figured the warm water of the Red Sea might be more supportive, that it might work. So I went to Egypt. I tried a few dips, a few dives and slowly at my own pace I was able to kind of slowly test the water literally.
MB: So how did it happen? Did you start by literally jumping in and swimming in the salt water?
JH: Literally one day I had to bite the bullet. It took a lot of courage for me to get kitted up. With the delicate nature of my skin post-injury, I couldn’t afford any abrasions or sunburn and I knew I needed to wear a full length wetsuit for protection.
So I took a fairly loose, full length wetsuit and took that giant stride, a ‘leap of faith’ off the back of the liveaboard in Egypt. To my joy and astonishment, I was able to slowly start to enjoy the realm of scuba diving all over again.
MB: I imagine immersion in the ocean was both physically and psychologically therapeutic?
JH: That’s right! It was like a double bonus. The psychological benefits, as well as the therapeutic effects of salt water on my skin and the joy that came from re-entering the aquatic realm were truly amazing.
Not only was it like a physical joy for me to once again giant stride off the back of a boat after not diving for the best part of five years. But having once been an active PADI instructor, I felt like a novice all over again.
I got back in the water and sort of tested myself, did some try dives and once again the joy I found allowed me to refocus my energies towards furthering my rehabilitation.
MB: When I grew up as a kid, my Dad always used to say, “salt water’s really good for you”. Were the therapeutic effects of the salt water a complete surprise or did you expect it?
JH: I did wonder whether the salt water might be a little too corrosive for my damaged skin. That’s why it was like a leap of faith. To my surprise and joy it felt good, and I experienced some remarkable healing benefits from the salt water.
Sometimes I wear a rash vest in the swimming pool. The concern was always whether the salt water would be an issue. I have a natural respect for the salt water environment. But you also have to consider that salt water is a corrosive element, you spend too much time in salt water and your skin can kind of soften up. I need to be careful with that.
So as a diver, as an instructor that spends a lot of time in the water, I tend to take the precautionary measures by wearing a full length wetsuit and I even wear a hood because I’ve got quite a few marked burns to my scalp area.
MB: When you visit locations like Koh Tao for extended periods of time, four to six weeks like you are now, do you notice the benefits of extended exposure to and immersion in the salt water?
JH: Of course. I dive up to four times a day. I take precautions as we’ve described with the full length wetsuit and a hood. These precautions allow me to do a lot of scuba diving. As a result I’m able to get the benefits from the salt water therapy on my skin.
My skin feels better and I can see it looks better. I don’t get the dryness I usually experience in the UK. It means I’m able to carry on diving and gaining my experience as a PADI instructor.
I’ve just done the best part of two months from April to June 2018 with Crystal dive here in Koh Tao and I’ve found that there’s remarkable benefits to the quality of my skin, to the rehabilitation effects and the improvement in my skin quality.
By contrast, when I’m back home in England over, let’s face it, a pretty crappy, typical sort of damp UK winter, my skin gets drier and I get a much drier kind of flaky skin in places. I have to use lots of moisturisers and take a lot more care of my skin back home. Whereas here in Koh Tao all I need to do is jump in the open water a couple of times a day and my skin is good.
MB: So physically you can clearly see the benefits of extended periods in the water. From a psychological perspective, how has scuba diving helped the healing process?
JH: Undeniably the gravity of my injuries lead to prolonged periods of deep depression. It was very similar to post-traumatic stress. In my mind it was a depression that I felt I couldn’t shake.
I was naturally subdued, very depressed, but the opportunity to get back into open water, particularly in the warm water environments such as Egypt, and now in Koh Tao and Crystal dive in the tropics, I’ve felt that it’s given me a fantastic boost mentally, psychologically.
It’s helped me to come to terms a bit more with my injuries and accept what’s happened to me and just to have that kind of joy factor in life. If I’m healing well because of salt water it makes me feel good about myself.
MB: You’ve participated in a lot of action and adventure sports. Would you suggest scuba diving has been one of the most helpful experiences?
JH: As you mentioned I’ve been involved in a lot of adventure sports and a lot of challenges. Post-injury I retrained and enhanced my skills as a PADI instructor and improved myself through continuing education. I also retrained as a UK mountain leader and worked in that profession internationally.
There’s been a string of challenges over the last five or six years in the rehabilitative phase of my injury and I’ve been very fortunate. But overall I would definitely say that scuba diving has had the most positive effects.
It’s given me that double bonus of not only the healing benefits from the salt water, but it’s also given me a tremendous psychological benefits, particularly from being back in the tropics here in Koh Tao and having the opportunity to work again.
MB: How has scuba diving helped you to help others? This a two part question and the second part is: how do you plan on continuing to use scuba diving in the way that you just described? Clearly scuba diving has helped you so what are your thoughts about helping others that have similar injuries or just very traumatic injuries?
JH: Scuba diving as an activity specifically has enabled me to not only help myself, but it’s also enabled me by being a PADI instructor, for example, to be involved in pursuits to try and help and develop other people and introduce them to the concept of scuba diving.
So back home, for example, in the UK, I’ve worked with several charities, Help for Heroes, Blesma, (British Limbless Ex Serviceman’s Association) and a smaller organization called Depth Therapy, helping them to motivate and inspire other wounded, injured and sick service personnel and veterans.
By giving them the opportunity to participate in things like scuba diving I am passing on some of those skills and knowledge as a PADI instructor and hopefully facilitating a similar healing process that I have experienced.
We’ve been doing try dives, like PADI Discover Scuba Diving experiences (DSDs). In some cases we’ve been working with students to do their PADI Open Water Course and even continuing education programs like their Advanced Course.
Many veterans have come through those military service charities in the UK and the direct benefits associated from participating in scuba diving that I can testify to as a PADI instructor have been amazing.
I’ve worked with amputees, guys that have had traumatic brain injuries, spinal injuries, even partial sight loss, so a full range in terms of the spectrum of injuries. By sharing my experiences and providing these opportunities to similarly challenged individuals, I’ve seen the joy and additional benefits they’ve got out of trying scuba diving.
MB: PADI have developed the new adaptive techniques specialty training program. This program focuses on increasing awareness of varying diver abilities, and explores adaptive teaching techniques to apply when training and diving with physically and mentally challenged divers. How do you think you can integrate that into your future scuba diving activities?
JH: As a PADI instructor who has been involved with military service charities, I feel like with the adaptive techniques program it may provide me with the opportunity to give something back to people who have been through traumatic experiences not dissimilar to my own.
I have been diving for a long time, having done my instructor exams 20 years ago. Now, with all that has happened, I feel that real satisfaction for me going forward will be achieved working with others, helping to develop others. Thinking about what the future may hold, the obvious route for me now, having completed my master instructor internship here at Crystal Dive in Koh Tao is to return and gain more experience.
My personal aim is to continue my development and apply for the PADI Course Director training course. If successful, I’m then going to be in a position that I’m going to be able to give more back to the community that I’ve been diligently serving for the last six years and that will be with the veterans.
Programs like the adaptive techniques course will provide great guidance and support in this quest.
MB: How can the Course Director accreditation help you give back to the community?
JH: Successful completion of the Course Director Training Course (CDTC) will enable me to offer more in terms of what I can deliver to that specific community. I’m talking about veterans, wounded, injured, and sick individuals. As a course director I would be in a position to teach courses at a high level through PADI and within the industry at a wider level.
The goal would be to teach on PADI IDC programs, but to be able to include those with the injuries and disabilities using the PADI adaptive techniques process to deliver training for those individuals specifically. I would be able to work patiently and help them develop as individuals adjusting to their specific needs and developing them using the adaptive techniques program.
MB: How has Crystal Dive and Matt Bolton helped you on this journey so far?
JH: As I’ve mentioned earlier I been here for two months and Crystal Dive Koh Tao as a 5 Star PADI career development centre has provided me with a unique and vast array of teaching opportunities.
Specifically I’ve been focusing primarily on teaching and delivering continuing education courses, trying to gear up towards making a successful CDTC application in 2019. Crystal Dive has enabled me to build up my professional portfolio of continuing education certifications.
It’s enabled me to teach everything from advanced open water through to rescue diver, and a number of divemaster applications. So I’ve been able to gain invaluable experience that would not have been possible in the UK.
MB: Crystal Dive is a busy dive centre. Has this helped your professional development?
JH: From a professional development perspective, my time at Crystal Dive has been spectacular. I’ve had the opportunity to increase my certifications by more than 50 in the short time I have been here.
Specifically I feel that I’ve had an amazing opportunity to engross myself in professional-level development programs, like the divemaster program. This helps me in developing a successful master instructor application.
It’s fast and furious here at Crystal Dive, and you gain experience very quickly. I already had great experience from before, but it’s certainly given me experience in a whole different environment that is new for me. I can now say that I’ve worked for yet another Career Development Center (CDC) in a new part of the world.
Another real advantage of my time here at Crystal Dive has been the opportunity to work alongside some very experienced PADI dive professionals as well as some novices. It has been a real environment of sharing and learning that has gone both ways.
I’ve worked alongside some very experienced master instructors on the dive master program, that have been here in their own right for a great number of years between them, and they have a huge amount of experience which they’ve passed on to me.
I’ve worked with some brand new instructors and I’ve probably helped them by giving them a few tips and hints from my own experiences. And so it’s been hugely developmental all around. I feel very privileged
MB: Have you had any memorable experiences with the marine conservation team while you have been here?
JH: Over the past couple of months I have had the pleasure of working with Marine conservationist Jenny Dowling, who spearheads Eco Koh Tao, Crystal Dives’ marine conservation department. Her passion for conservation and the marine environment is very inspiring.
I was fortunate enough to be able to join Jenny on some conservation dives here at Crystal. Many of the dive sites Crystal Dive uses have actually been created and developed by Eco Koh Tao. Amazing dive sites, namely Junkyard Reef and the artificial reefs at Buoyancy World, that they’ve been developing for over the last ten years. Truly amazing work.
It’s been a phenomenal real world introduction for me to the concept of eco diving and the partnership with PADI and Project Aware. This is something that I would like to continue in my own professional career.
MB: Your passion for scuba is obvious. What drives you? What do you get out of it personally? What’s the little thing inside you that keeps that light burning in terms of what you want to get from it yourself?
JH: Scuba diving has been a long term passion of mine going back some 20 years. It’s not something I find that goes away. When I’m back in the UK, I almost dream about getting back out there, scuba diving again in tropical environments.
From a personal point of view, I figured, it makes sense to find a way that I can use these skills to help others. It’s good for me on both a personal and psychological front. But I also get a lot of joy out of teaching. I’ve always had a lot of personal satisfaction and pride in being a PADI instructor.
Having worked with a number of charities in the UK, I got a great deal of satisfaction out of teaching once again, and helping to develop some of those individuals struggling to come to terms with their own challenges.
Thinking about the future, thinking about my own career prospects, now that I’m in control and managing my own injuries and trauma, it’s a nice feeling to be able to consider the future in a positive light.
The idea of a career within the diving industry and the goal of becoming a PADI course director, seems like the most logical progression for me now. It’s almost like I think the glove would fit.
With these skills I’d be able to give more back to the community and I’ll get a huge amount of personal satisfaction from that. I think it would be something that would just fit me as an individual, and it would suit my personality and my mindset.
Working with an organization like PADI is also very inspiring. The challenge never stops. I never lose sight of the fact that you’re only as good theoretically and practically, as your last dive.
This is an industry, this is a sport or recreation where you can never let your guard down. And that’s what keeps me buzzing. I’ve always loved diving because you’ve got to think on your feet.
That’s how I see my role with scuba diving and my role as PADI instructor. There’s an element of risk that I enjoy managing, and I enjoy passing that onto my students at all levels.
So it makes sense for me to go on and develop myself as a diver, to go on to become a PADI course director and to continue to manage that risk and to get the kind of joy and satisfaction from doing so. But equally to be able to pass on that to my fellow students, to be able to offer them more in that sense.
MB: Future plans, future ambitions? Hopes and dreams?
JH: First and foremost I love scuba diving. It is my passion and my love. I hope I can have the opportunity to develop as a diver and continue my education, maybe on the technical side as well.
I’ve had a great sidemount course here at Crystal Dive with Andrea and I would like to continue that further. Maybe do some technical sidemount, gain some more experience, more dives in that field.
Again, that may be something that in turn, as an aspiring course director, I may be able to offer to future students. Maybe specifically to adaptive students in the future and really try to hopefully open up that market with some of those individuals. I believe that’s where my focus ultimately really lies in the future.
As a future course director, I want to be able to offer my services to the mainstream market. But also I want to really be able to offer those services specifically to that niche market of the disabled, the wounded and the veterans.
I want people to see the value in scuba diving and become passionate advocates of the ocean, to love it like I do and help them feel the pleasure and sheer joy that it brings me. If they enjoy it and show promise, they can be the next divemasters and instructors. Potentially they could be aspiring technical divers themselves in the future. And that’s where I’d like to be a key player and hopefully an industry leader within the industry and alongside PADI.
The short to medium term plan is to return to Koh Tao, hopefully later this year to gain some more experience. I will hopefully get the opportunity to work on some of the IDCs here with you. This will also assist with the more medium term goal to apply for the CDTC with PADI and hopefully gain success in 2019 with that process.
MB: Do you think that scuba diving can influence others like it has yourself?
JH: I think there is a huge market potential for scuba diving and individuals with disabilities especially applying the PADI adaptive techniques program. There’s an untapped market. There’s probably so many people sitting at home that watch it on TV.
They’ve watched documentaries on BBC with people scuba diving and they would love to give it a go. But the idea might feel a little overwhelming or beyond them.
But trust me from my own perspective, having been through those challenges and faced adversity in 2012 when I returned to the water, I can firmly testify, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
From my own point of view, I have a physical disability, nerve damage in both lower limbs, muscle loss and partial paralysis in my feet. If I can do it, there’s a world of opportunity for other people with injuries, disability and trauma. The concept of hopefully inspiring and motivating people and giving people that opportunity, is fundamentally what I’m all about.
There’s a reason why I’m still here I was told in the hospital and it’s something that I’ve only recently come to believe. Through my scuba diving and as a PADI instructor, I feel that there’s so many people out there that can benefit.
But they can do it. They can achieve like I have. They can embrace some remarkable opportunities and benefits through scuba diving for sure, just like I have.
Conclusion: leading by example
A compelling story of tragedy, adversity, courage and hope through rehabilitation and therapeutic recovery, highlighting the physical and psychological benefits the ocean environment offers to scuba divers.
Jamie is an inspiration and his story is a revelation of the strength of the human spirit and also about the role scuba diving can play in the lives of individuals who have suffered life-changing impairments.
After learning how to manage and cope with his own personal injuries, Jamie now wants to lead by example and achieve the highest and most respected professional rating in the recreational scuba diving industry and leverage this position to help others with disabilities.