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Vol. LXI, No. 23
November 13, 2009

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Happiest In Over Her Head
Full-Time NIH’er Thrives as Part-Time Scuba Instructor to Soldiers

Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, shown here at the June 2002 meeting of the advisory committee to the NIH director, had many roles in more than 50 years at NIH.
By day, Jane Spencer works in NIH human resources, but the rest of the time she likes to submerge herself among marine life around the world. Above, she enjoys underwater Palau.

By day, Jane Spencer can be found toiling away in the Office of Human Resources, feet squarely planted on terra firma. Evenings and weekends, however, Spencer’s life sinks…considerably. That’s when, at the first opportunity, she dons a wetsuit and mask, hitches up her scuba tank and dives into the depths of the ocean.

“I always wanted to be Jacques Cousteau—without the nose,” Spencer jokes. “The underwater world fascinated me even as a child and once I tried diving for the first time, I was completely hooked on it.”

Her first dive was more than two decades ago, and each one since has been no less thrilling. Over the past year, however, Spencer has taken her passion for the deep to a new, more rewarding level. Now she works part-time as an instructor for Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba (SUDS), a non-profit organization that helps members of the military rehabilitate themselves after war injuries. She says that beyond diving lessons, SUDS—which operates in pool facilities at both Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Bethesda Navy—offers intangible healing.

Spencer emerges from the seas of the Turks and Caicos.

“I meet these otherwise young and healthy men and women who have been paralyzed or who have lost a limb and they tell me they feel like they’ll never be able to do cool stuff again, that they feel like they’ll never be whole again,” Spencer explains. “I get to introduce them to something that is somewhat adventurous and very cool. I see how vibrant they are in the water. Really, there’s no better feeling.”

Prescribed by physical as well as mental and emotional health therapists to help people cope with all types of life-altering wounds, SUDS provides several hours of local scuba practice and online theory before taking students to prime diving locales such as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the Virgin Islands and the Florida Keys. All expenses are paid, although SUDS runs solely on a combination of donations, fundraisers and grants. Priority is given to those who have not already been deemed certified divers. Spencer says once merchants in the locations realize what SUDS is, they wave off efforts by the group to pay.

“‘Your money’s no good here,’ we’re told,” relates Spencer. Students can spend a year or more in the program, depending on their rehab process. SUDS has certified more than 145 students since February 2007.

Spencer pirouettes underwater in the Red Sea, Egypt.

With more than 20 years of experience underwater—10 years as a dive master and assistant instructor plus 10 as a full instructor—Spencer has dived in waters all around the world, including Fiji, Thailand, Australia, the Red Sea and just about everywhere in the Caribbean. Where’s the best diving? She answers without hesitation: “Palau and Yap,” two islands in Micronesia that lie hundreds of miles nearly due east of the Philippines, flanked on either side by the Philippine Sea and the north Pacific Ocean. “There’s just so much to see on dives there—big stuff, little stuff, caverns to explore…really good diving spots that have beautiful sights above water as well as below.”

A few weeks ago, Spencer spent the Columbus Day holiday weekend taking 10 students to the Keys for their finals. [The D.C. metropolitan area offers little in the way of underwater sightseeing, Spencer notes. Although diving skills can be learned in waters around here, local abandoned quarries and lakes are too dark and cold for true thrill dives.]

“I need to be one of those people who gives back,” she says. “I can do that by volunteering this way. I’m doing my volunteer bit to ensure that someone else some day does their volunteer thing for my niece [a U.S. Army 2nd lieutenant].”

Spencer also volunteers as a diver at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, proving that water is more like a second home to her.

“Generally I dive to see the cool sights in the underwater world,” she concludes, “but I often tell people that even if I were blind, I would dive. The sense of weightlessness in the water—of being neutrally buoyant, totally suspended—is beyond anything you can imagine. It’s a wonderful sensation of flying.”

You can give back to SUDS too, Spencer notes. The organization is #94754 among this year’s CFC charities. NIHRecord Icon

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