“The doctor said to me, ‘You need this,’” says Paul Zanelli of the advice that tipped him in favor of following through on a Kids Sea Camp Dominica reservation he and his family had booked for spring 2017. An accident weeks earlier resulted in the amputation of Zanelli’s right leg below the knee. Immediately after, all he had were questions.
“Did I need two legs? Could I swim with one? Yeah … I was scared.”
Zanelli and his wife, Cindy, of Tewksbury, New Jersey, had a history of diving together before having two children. With the young ones finally old enough to get certified, they’d only recently become a family that dives together. And the thought of diving again inspired Zanelli. “Once I had a plan, my life was back on track. I said to myself, ‘Let’s move on. Let’s go.’”
Zanelli, a fireman and EMT for 36 years, returned to what he knew how to do: overcome obstacles. Step one, after physical therapy, was to find a prosthesis that would work underwater.
Check. He calls it his “cool leg.” Next Step Orthopedics makes the model designed to flex like his other foot does. “I press the button and it moves my ankle to a 75-degree angle.”
Zanelli also had the foresight to replace some of his old gear he’d used when drysuit diving. Gone were the thick, heavy fins and back-plate-and-harness-style BC. Along with lighter fins, he chose a full BC, which would allow him to drop weights in case of an emergency. He also bought webbed gloves, and Margo Peyton, founder of Kids Sea Camp, arranged for a divemaster trained in adaptive scuba to dive alongside Zanelli.
“I felt safe — but almost too safe, like I was in a bubble,” says Zanelli of the moments leading up to his first attempt to re-enter the water.
Five minutes later, Zanelli knew he’d be a diver still.
“Once my buoyancy was good, the feeling was euphoria,” he says. “And I couldn’t help but think, Damn, this is easy. I had to switch a few things, but it was like riding a bike. I don’t think there has been a happier moment in my life.” That euphoria was shared by the whole family.
Says Cindy, “It was a big high for us to feel like we were a family that could dive together again. And some of Paul’s doctors had said there was no way he was going diving.”
But as Zanelli says, “I was taught a long time ago that no is not in my vocabulary. Now, the hospital wants me to start a program for people with amputations. Most people don’t recover from an amputation well. Some people in wheelchairs are given a prosthesis and are too afraid to use it.”
Zanelli knows a lot about recovery. Out of the hospital, he started physical therapy and lost 67 pounds. With little muscle left, he could barely walk.
“I was scared to fall, but if I can succeed, you can succeed,” he says. “To anyone with an amputation, I ask you to just take that first step on your prosthesis. And from there, there really are no limits.”
When Margo Peyton, of Kids Sea Camp, heard about Paul Zanelli’s accident and ensuing amputation, she worked to make sure he could attend his scheduled trip to Dominica, making arrangements for an accessible room, Handicapped Scuba Association instructor and underwater scooter to help with his mobility. She helped make this happen through the not-for-profit foundation Ocean Wishes, which supports a variety of marine-conservation and dive-related causes and organizations. oceanwishes.org