coming back from the deep

Lynn Shizumura
December 29, 2020

Dennis Okada was an aircraft mechanic and avid diver. In January 1986, everything changed. Life as he knew it was over, but his search for meaning had just begun.      

A diving accident left him paralyzed from the neck down, which meant he would never walk or dive again. Okada doesn’t share too many details about the day of the accident. While scuba diving off Rabbit Island, he swam up too quickly and lost consciousness when he was back on the boat. His friend got him to shore and called an ambulance. Okada woke up on the way to the hospital.

Okada’s injury was the result of decompression sickness, also known as the bends. The bends is caused by nitrogen bubbles that can form if a diver ascends too quickly during a dive. Although they may sound harmless, these bubbles can cause bone injury, inflammation, paralysis, or death. “Sometimes the bubbles get trapped in your joints or bones. In my case, they traumatized my spinal cord,” Okada says.

After receiving emergency medical care, Okada’s treatment included hyperbaric oxygen therapy at a hyperbaric chamber facility and physical therapy at REHAB Hospital of the Pacific.

Okada was frustrated and depressed when he got to REHAB. He couldn’t walk and had to adjust to life in a wheelchair. He could move his arms, but he couldn’t move his hands. He missed being able to work with his hands.

Physical therapy was an essential part of his recovery. Okada learned how to sit up, balance, and regain use of his hands. His left hand started working before his right. Eventually, he learned to write again. “A lot of things just took time,” he says.

Then there was the emotional and spiritual healing. “I was in no physical or mental condition to go on. I actually didn’t want to go on for a long time,” he says. He pushed through the darkest times with the help of his loving wife, Hanako. “Quitting was not an option for her. She was a rock and still is to this day.” Okada also learned to paint in REHAB’s creative arts program many years after his accident.

Photos: REHAB Hospital of the Pacific

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