Scuba diving a good fit for amputees

Amputees on the Move member Mark Kray gets instructions from Jeffrey Spillane (left) and Brian Wampole (right). (Alen Malott/Inquirer Staff)

At first, Brian Hartranft brushed off suggestions he should take a scuba-diving lesson. That is not something he could do, he thought, with one leg.

Hartranft, of Muhlenberg Township, Berks County, was putting up Christmas lights for his mother when he fell off a ladder. He shattered his shinbone and fibula in his right leg.

After 20 operations and struggling through infections - he called the experience "literally hell" - doctors removed his leg at the knee last August.

After some prodding by fellow amputees, Hartranft joined about a half dozen other men who have lost a leg to learn to scuba dive in a pool at a retirement community outside Reading on Saturday.

"I wouldn't have done this with two legs," Hartranft, 52, said. "Maybe I'm more daring with one leg."

The men are in a group called Amputees on the Move, which encourages its nearly 20 members not to limit themselves.

The members are some of the nearly two million people in the United States living with the loss of a limb, according to the nonprofit Amputee Coalition of America.

"We don't sit on our butts and feel sorry for ourselves," said Tony Petro, of Exeter Township, Berks County, who started Amputees on the Move in December. "We go out and do things normal people do."

Members have gone bowling, golfing, and swimming. They plan to go hiking in October.

Petro, 67, a Vietnam veteran, lost his left leg to an infection from diabetes when he was 34.

Volunteer instructors, mostly from a water rescue team in Berks County and Hilltop Diving, an adaptive scuba-diving facility in Schwenksville, Montgomery County, taught the men.

On Sept. 19, Hilltop Diving will teach scuba diving in a pool at the Carousel House recreation center at the fifth annual Philadelphia Rec Fest. It is a showcase of adapted sports for children and adults with physical or developmental disabilities.

On Saturday, instructors spent a few minutes explaining the various knobs and gadgets on the scuba vests and taught the men from Amputees on the Move how to control their buoyancy.

Frank Hicks, of Warminster Township, Bucks County, had brought goggles from home, but the instructors had the equipment he needed.

"I'll put them in the leg," he said, dropping the goggles into the top of his prosthetic leg.

Hicks, 65, lost his left leg from gunshot wounds he suffered in the Vietnam War.

Most of the men carefully removed their prosthetic legs and left them by the side of the pool.

One man's prosthetic could handle the chlorine water, so he slipped into the water with it.

Then, suddenly, the men and their instructors disappeared. They became hazy shapes gliding smoothly through four and a half feet of water until they popped out with grins on their faces.

"Everyone can do the same things in the water," said Jim Hoser, founder of Hilltop Diving.

The instructors taught the men how to swim with a flipper attached to only one foot, and they added weights to keep the men from floating.

Despite Brian Hartranft's initial skepticism, he said his scuba lesson was a great experience.

Hartranft, who has a series of tattoos on both arms and cannot wait to go back to climbing trees to hunt, said he felt light and relaxed while he was swimming, "like a butterfly."

As they left the pool, the men set their eyes on a potential future challenge: scuba diving in the ocean.

610-313-8207 @MichaelleBond