Krista Ramsey reports:
A foot to the left, and Kellie Morris would have never remembered the moment.
It was June 30, 2012, a blisteringly hot day, and as the 2010 Mason High School graduate hung out at Fort Loudoun Lake outside Knoxville, Tenn., with friends from the University of Tennessee, she did something she’d been doing all summer. She stood up in a small rowboat and dove into the center of the lake.
A foot to her left would have been the center of the lake. But Kellie was a foot to the right, and beneath her wasn’t water but a hidden shelf of rock. She struck it headfirst, shattering the C7 vertebra at the top of her spine and, in an instant, becoming paralyzed below the chest.
Every year 6,500 young Americans arrive at emergency rooms with diving injuries. About 80 percent, like Kellie, were making dives from a height of 3 feet or less and entering the water headfirst.
Most go home with cuts or bruises. But of the 1,000 who sustain spinal cord injury, 90 percent will be paralyzed.
Kellie and her mom, Karen Mooney, are using Kellie’s accident to relay a simple message they say could have changed those young people’s fate: Feet first.
Teaching children to enter the water with their feet rather than their heads and necks will sharply reduce swim-season spinal cord injuries, experts say. The safest entry method is walking or wading in – rather than jumping or diving – to make sure water depth is at least 10 feet, the minimum for safe diving.
The ThinkFirst National Injury Prevention Foundation has coined the “Feet First” slogan, and Kellie and her mother hope the habit will become as automatic and pervasive as buckling seat belts and slipping on bike helmets. They’re convinced it can save lives. “With all of the water around us – from Cumberland to the Ohio River to just plain old backyard pools – if we can call out the dangers, it might save at least one family from what ours is experiencing,” Karen says.
The unpredictable geography of bodies of water is a huge part of the problem. “Backyard pools can be any dimension – backyard pools can be anything,” says Debby Gerhardstein, executive director of the ThinkFirst Foundation. And ponds, rivers and oceans can be filled with hidden elevated hazards.
An intuitive sense about which is the deep end of the pool – and how deep the “deep end” is – is not a sound basis for personal safety. Most diving injuries aren’t caused by horseplay or arcs off high-dives, experts say, they’re caused by simple miscalculation of water depth. Entering with their feet gives swimmers the chance to be wrong and not pay for it for the rest of their life.
As Kellie Morris knows, the road back from a spinal cord injury is a long and difficult journey.
Thirteen months ago, she was about to enlist in the U.S. Navy, a gutsy former high school and college jock who could “catch any ball that was thrown to me.” A year out from her accident, she is making slower but no less noteworthy progress – mastering self-care tasks, learning to drive a car with hand controls. Her mother takes her to Columbus three times a week for therapy. Her father and step-mother, Tom and Kathy Morris, oversee her daily care.
She plans to enroll at Middle Tennessee State University this fall and is thinking about a career in law enforcement. For now, she says, if her “feet first” message prevents one diving accident “I’ll feel I’ve done my job.”