Eight feet below the surface of the water in the Florida Keys, Matt Johnston became the world’s first ventilator-dependent person to dive in the ocean.
With that dive on the Hen and Chickens coral reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Matt realized his dream. But his feat also showed others with physical disabilities that they should not be discouraged from following their own dreams.
Matt has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, so the dive was made via a hose connected to a ventilator on the surface. An alternative that would make the dive easier and allow him to go deeper involves a life support system consisting of a half ventilator and half regulator. But in the Keys, eight feet was deep enough to open up a new world for him.
There were colourful corals “and the turtles were awesome.” A barracuda came menacingly close. A shark circled 15 feet away from Matt and his two support divers.
“I’m a shark guy,” says Matt, adding that he was not frightened by the shark’s presence.
His precedent-setting dive in November of 2006 was followed the next year by another in Key Largo above an underwater hotel.
To participate in diving, Matt needs an instructor and a rescue diver. “I have to put all my trust in them,” he says.
Over the years, he has received emails inquiring about scuba diving from other people on ventilators.
His trail blazing in ventilator-dependent persons’ diving has also gained him recognition in diving museum in the Keys.
For Matt, diving is therapeutic. “It helps me relax. I have no pain of any kind (in the water) but my body aches all the time on the surface.”
Now, he’s working on a book about his life story. So far, it’s up to 27 pages – and counting.