Plunging Head-First Into Troubled Water

On July 25, 1991, Shawn Meneely's life changed forever, but he remembers very little of the incident that left him paralyzed.

"I don't remember actually going into the water, just going off the board," Meneely, now 33, recalled.

Meneely went off the diving board into a pool that was only 7½ feet at the deepest point, and hit his head on the incline leading into shallower water.

He has done relatively well since then, graduating college and now working in financial services for UBS in Seattle. But he also needs an aide to help him get dressed and prepare his food before he takes his five-block commute to work in his wheelchair.

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"He has and has had from day one a fabulous attitude," said his mother, Kathy Meneely. But at the same time, she said, "He's had a lot of medical issues."

A new study in the journal Pediatrics shows that a significant number of children come close to repeating Meneely's experience each year.

Shawn Meneely said that after he publicly recounts what happened to him, a number of people tell him of their own diving injuries, which can include smacking their face, breaking their nose or cutting their forehead.

"I [say], 'Yeah, that's how close it is,'" Meneely said, adding that a fraction of an inch or another inch difference and "you could be in my situation."

But Meneely's case is the exception rather than the rule in diving injuries.

"Less than 5 percent of all the injuries we looked at were hospitalized," said Lara B. McKenzie, a child safety researcher at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and the study's lead author.

The researchers looked at emergency room statistics in Consumer Product Safety Commission surveys from 1990 through 2006 and based on those data, projected that just over 111,000 patients under the age of 20 visited emergency departments for diving-related injuries during this period.

They found that the most common cause of injury was a collision with the diving board or platform. They also found that children under 10 were more likely to be cut and children under 5 were more likely to have facial injuries.

McKenzie said the study should be the first step toward broader awareness of diving injuries and efforts to educate people about how they happen and how they can be prevented.

"The number of diving injures is pretty high, and this has been consistent over this time period," she said. "I don't know if it's a cause for alarm, but it's a cause for concern."

Diving is a growing sport, and McKenzie said that the increased complexity of dives children may attempt has undoubtedly contributed to a number of the injuries.

Several pediatric emergency departments contacted by ABC News for this story said they had no experience dealing with diving injuries, so this study has led some doctors to conclude that the problem is more common than expected.

"What they describe are injuries that we see," said Dr. Valerie Thompson, division director of pediatric emergency medicine for the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami.

"I think this makes it more practical and emphasizes that the people who are being injured are not such a select population, nor are the injuries. They are more common and more generalized than we thought," she said.

Thompson said that one of the most striking findings of the study was that boys ages 10 to 14, and not older teenagers, were the most at risk for diving injuries. She said she plans to take that to heart when she speaks with her own sons -- who are in that age range -- about pool safety.

"It's not the older boys who are engaged in other high risk behaviors," Thompson said. "It's the age group that's still under our supervision."

McKenzie, the study's lead author, said parents, coaches and others supervising children near water could take a number of steps to prevent diving injuries. The steps include educate children about not jumping into murky or too shallow water, having a lifeguard present, putting visible depth indicators around the pool, teaching proper diving techniques and removing obstacles from the bottoms of pools.

Many children might emerge from a diving accident with only minor injuries, but Meneely will attest that even minor diving injuries are a sign that something worse could have happened.

He said, "You're only a degree or an angle or an inch from something more catastrophic happening."

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