"Scuba" Steve Cohen, 50, was a professional commercial scuba diver and surfing fanatic, active and healthy, when he suffered spinal cord damage upon resurfacing from a 165 foot dive off the coast of Georgia.First Coast diver struggles to regain salt life after paralysis from decompression sickness
"Steve Cohen went spearfishing in 1989 and got hooked. On the pursuit, on the hunt, on the life.
He was in his 20s. He had been drifting: dabbling in real estate, not finishing chiropractor school. He felt unfulfilled. That first time he shot some fish, though, the ocean handed him a purpose. He has spent the better part of the last two decades diving into the water looking for fish.
Along the way his hunts became something more. They went religion-deep.
"It's a beautiful way of life," he said. "It's what man was meant to do. That's why I'm 48 years old and don't have a gray hair on my head."
The ocean changes you. Go deep enough for long enough and when you come back up you'll never be the same. And Cohen surfaced in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Georgia one day last December changed forever.
The ocean hurt him. It left him with a body he couldn't use, in a wheelchair, praying to get back on the ocean one day and stay so long that the sun sets.
"Out of everything that I cannot do right now, the list is very long," he said. "Going out on the ocean and spending the night out there, I miss that the most."
See more images of Steve Cohen's life after diving incident
With his madcap eyes, skin the color of coffee, three creams, and mischievous grin, he comes across like a carefree, PG-13 pirate. His face went straight not long ago, though, when he began telling about Dec. 17, the day the ocean robbed him of his purpose.
He began: "It was the third day of the trip, first dive of the day."
He went 150 feet down in a strong current about 9 a.m. and shot three grouper. After about 10 minutes, using the anchor line as a guide, he started his ascent. Reaching the boat he handed his catch, about 70 pounds' worth, to someone and climbed aboard. He felt it immediately, "coming on strong."
Decompression sickness. Oxygen and nitrogen bubbles form inside the body during a deep dive and when a diver comes up too fast, the bubbles enter the bloodstream because of a sudden decrease in pressure. The bends, as it is commonly called, is something divers learn about long before they go into the water.
Studies show it happens about two to four times out of every 10,000 dives, according to Petar Denoble, senior research director with Divers Alert Network.
The symptoms usually are mild: joint and muscle pain, tingling in the extremities. Less than 5 percent of the cases are "severe," Denoble said.
Cohen was heading for the 5 percent.
He began breathing from his tank. He collapsed, "flopping around like a flounder" on the deck. He drifted in and out. The Coast Guard was called. He barely remembers a helicopter flying him to a Georgia hospital. At one point he asked for his father.
"Over a period of time his body literally started to shut down," said Kathy Gunter, his girlfriend.
Cohen, four months later, described what happened like a hunter.
"You go from predator to prey," he said, "in one moment."
To hear him talk about spearfishing is to hear a voice in bliss. His eyes widen. You can almost see his blood rise.
A "liquid hunter," he said, has to invest time learning about his prey. Learn what fish want. Take grouper, for example. He gets low to the bottom and stirs the sand. The fish, curious, come close.
"Never look them in the eyes," he said. "I even tell a fish when I see a fish, 'I don't see you. You don't see me.' "
The diver gets 60 percent of the earnings; the boat owner and captain take the other 40. He made $1,500 a week, easy. His reputation as a producer kept him in steady work. He became "Scuba Steve," the nickname most know him by. He began selling videos of his exploits on and in the ocean.
He would come in from three- and four-day hunts "jacked up" with intensity. He would be glowing with accomplishment. He felt like a king. He might go to a bar. He might surf.
"It strikes your primal instinct," he said. "When you go out and you're on the ocean for five days at a time, you come back, you feel like a warrior. I think man's made for that. I think he's made to be in the ocean."
The bubbles in his body hit his spinal column, causing paralysis. He couldn't move anything from the neck down for 10 days after his accident. But it wasn't until he saw Gunter and his family crying in his hospital room that he knew.
Still in the hospital trying to grip what had happened, he received a call from Patrick Duffy, a retired Jacksonville gastroenterologist whose son knows Cohen.
Twenty years ago Duffy was on a recreational dive off the West Palm Beach coast. After surfacing from a 90-foot depth, he spent three months in a hospital paralyzed from the neck down.
"It's very easy to make a mistake," Duffy, 71, said of diving. "And if you make one, you pay for it out there."
Duffy learned to walk again through grueling therapy. But he needs a cane and will tell you he is still recovering. He has dedicated a large part of his life to healing himself. He struggled early on with how he was going to live his life. He called Cohen and told him he "cannot afford the luxury of a negative thought."
He began applying the carefree and relentless attitude the ocean put in him to his therapy when he got home Feb. 1.
"He's crazy," said Katherine Cunningham, who works at Brooks Neuro Recovery Center, where Cohen goes most weekdays. "He definitely has the drive and passion to succeed. You would almost expect someone to be depressed. He comes in here with a go-get-them attitude. It's inspiring to other patients."
The accident damaged his nerves. He keeps a steady schedule trying to reteach them how to work. He follows his workouts at Brooks with aqua-therapy at a neighbor's pool and with yoga.
In April he got a hyperbaric chamber and put it in his bachelor pad beside a pool table and surfboards. He spends 90 minutes a day in it. He calls it his sanctuary. While he lies in it, the wet suit he was wearing on Dec. 17 hangs nearby.
He began keeping Italian bees. Duffy suggested them. They take his mind off the negative. He lets them sting his toes. He hopes it helps get feeling in them again.
It takes him an hour to get ready each morning and Bailey, his dachshund, "is a little weird" about his wheelchair, but things are slowly coming back.
The eyelid that went droopy over his right eye after the accident has straightened up. His hands and arms do what he tells them to now, though his fingertips can't tell the difference between cold and hot. But his legs just shake uncontrollably when he thinks about walking.
Near where he lives on Coquina Drive, a few houses have "Pray for Scuba Steve" signs in the yards. Inside his home on the refrigerator, beside get-well-soon cards, is picture after picture of him holding fish up triumphantly on piers, of him in a wet suit standing on boats' edges. They are old pictures and in all of them he is smiling.
He will likely walk again. But walking isn't the goal. Diving full time again is.
"I'm not going to stop until I get back to the salt life," he said.
Duffy hasn't scuba-dived since his accident. Too risky, he said. He doesn't want Cohen to, either. Another accident could end a lot worse.
But Cohen is undeterred.
Long before he was a rudderless young man, long before he found his calling in the ocean and long before it hurt him, his parents gave him his Hebrew name: Moshea. It means brought from the water.
Now he has to get back. He feels like it is his purpose.