Matthew Johnston has spent a lifetime battling the complications of Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy. The crippling and life-threatening disease leaves Matt confined to his wheelchair full-time, with only the use of his fingertips. Complicating this, Matt is unable to breathe on his own and requires use of a ventilator.
Despite this, Matt had a vision…to open an entire new world – the underwater world – for those with Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy. Sometimes the best things in life take time, however this triumphant push by Matt was one where time was THE limiting factor. At age 27, he set out determined to make his dreams come true, facing the reality that many with his disease live only until their young 30’s. There was work to be done…
In the summer of 2004, after an intensive grassroots push by Matt; his family, and close friends set out to contact anyone in the diving industry that would listen…hoping for help, answers as to how to solve the many technical and physical obstacles for such a project, funding, and simply a next door to open that would take things one step closer…one early breakthrough was Matt connecting with Michael Lombardi where a relationship was formed that lead to ‘Ocean Opportunity‘ sponsoring Matt, and subsequently what was to become the ‘Diving a Dream’ project. Diving a Dream was then thrust into motion, providing the vehicle to realize Matt’s dream to dive.
Matt’s Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy has caused a number of physical limitations that had to be overcome to even begin considering diving. First, and most significantly, Matt requires a ventilator to breathe through a tracheostomy. Unable to breathe independently, his lung function then becomes fully dependent on the ventilator underwater. Matt’s submerging to just 5 feet maximizes most vent’s pressure delivery capabilities. A second issue was keeping Matt’s trachea dry, as this would pose a very real risk of drowning. A custom drysuit was designed by DUI Drysuits that allowed passage of his vent tubes through the suit to his trachea. This development allowed Matt to immerse within the water for the first time in more than 10 years and relieve the weight of the world.
With Matt’s paralasys, he was dependent on his dive safety team to monitor his dive and the integrity of all life support equipment. Early in the project, a set of eye signals were developed. As the project evolved, Ocean Reef Group sponsored Diving a Dream by providing underwater communications equipment. This allowed Matt to communicate directly with his dive team and surface support.
A final limitation…the dive industry had never ‘certified’ a diver in Matt’s condition. This restricted pool access, the ability to purchase equipment, and exposed numerous liability hurdles in affording Matt his dream. Michael Lombardi, the Diving a Dream Coordinator, Drew Gerling, Matt’s dive instructor, and Sean Harrison of Scuba Diving International, teamed up to create a specialty program that would afford Matt with a unique certification…SDI Scubility Diver #1.
Since 2004, the collective support of many has afforded Matt Johnston and Diving a Dream numerous successes. With the assistance of Dive Instructor Drew Gerling and Rescue Diver Frank Fabio, Matt undertook his first water therapy sessions after not being immersed in water for more than 10 years. From that point, a number of carefully executed steps were put in place to slowly acclimate Matt to being completely immersed and dependent on his dive team. Custom techniques were developed, as was equipment, communications, and emergency procedures.
Over the course of 2 years, Matt reached over one consecutive hour underwater in a pool, to being the first with his condition to dive in a lake, and as of November 13, 2006, being the first to dive in the ocean. This absolutely epic event was featured on NBC’s Today Show in January 2007.
Matt’s project has truly pioneered the way the world perceives ‘limitations’, especially within the adaptive scuba community.
While no longer diving, Matt remains an active voice in the community, advocating for adaptive scuba programs, and inspiring kids to pursue their dreams at all cost.
Matt is currently undertaking a new research project aimed at improving many of the challenges that he was faced with during his early dives. This can be supported here: https://www.gofundme.com/divingadream.