A Survivor

A tiny storefront caught my eye one sunlit morning on Main Street in Williamson. The hand-carved wooden sign “Sea to Sea” hanging in the window drew me in. As I studied the antique fishing lures, figurines and nautical knickknacks in the window, my curiosity was piqued.

Inside, hanging on the wall by the door, was a framed newspaper story with a photo of a small yellow submarine on a trailer. A voice behind me said, “I built that.” I turned to meet Steve Dunning, a commercial diver, instructor, businessman and father. And survivor.

Steve has gone through more sheer hell than I can even imagine. Building a submarine helped him keep going. He speaks freely of his 15-year fight against a rare and deadly infection, in the hope of helping others believe that they, too, can beat the odds.

“It started in my eye. I thought it was just a scratch,” Steve said with a rueful smile. “On December 4, my birthday, it hit me really hard. I was sicker than sick. I couldn’t even stand up.”

It was the start of a decade-long ordeal of hospitalization, testing, and intensive and sometimes painful treatments. The initial stages of a viral infection that caused an inflammation of Steve’s circulatory system, called vasculitis, included a blood pressure spike that was near the limits of what medical equipment can measure. Steve went blind. He lost 30 pounds in two weeks. Within a few months his kidneys failed and he had to begin dialysis.

Fighting back
Steve and a friend had started their own commercial diving contractor business three years before. When his partner had to relocate after a year, Steve continued the business on his own. Thanks to the invasion of Lake Ontario by a pesky and prolific little shellfish called the zebra mussel, Sea to Sea Diving Enterprises had lots of business installing chlorination lines on water intakes and cleaning fouled mussel-encrusted pipes and equipment.

He got hooked on diving when he tried out some scuba gear in a friend’s pool. He was 7 years old. Soon he was “messing around” in local ponds and pools. He took classes in Rochester then went to Florida and New Jersey for commercial diving training.

After he got sick, the doctors told him he would never dive again, but he had no intention of giving up Sea to Sea. He was going back to work, no matter what anyone said.

“I refused to let them put a fistula in my arm for dialysis” he told me. The procedure, which provides access into the bloodstream for the exchange and cleansing of blood, often causes complications. Steve needed both of his arms. Instead, the surgeon put a catheter in his neck, and Steve took scrupulous care of it to prevent infections.

He began a four-hour-a-day, three-times-a-week hemodialysis routine. That, and the two-hour round trip to the hospital in Rochester, didn’t leave a lot of time for much else. He couldn’t dive. Yet. But he could dream and make plans.

Building a sub
Maybe it was those long hours spent in the hospital tethered to a dialysis machine that prompted Steve to think seriously about making his lifelong dream – ownership of a submarine – come true. And he was going to build it himself.

He studied, pondered and analyzed existing small sub designs, selecting and combining the best features of each for his own creation. He drew up plans, lofted construction drawings and began to assemble the components. As Steve slowly rebuilt his own life and health, he worked to construct his sub.

A company in Buffalo welded and pressure-tested the 1-inch-thick hull of submarine plate steel, a metal with “10 times the strength of boilerplate steel,” notes Steve. He designed and built the entire electrical system, the air purification scrubber, and the controls for the three electrical motors.

During this time, Steve’s sight slowly returned. His doctors switched him to a new type of dialysis that freed him from being connected to a machine in the hospital. They removed the catheter in his shoulder and implanted one in his abdomen so that he could undergo peritoneal dialysis. In this process, he fills his peritoneal cavity with a special fluid that picks up wastes and is then removed. It’s less efficient than hemodialysis that purifies the blood, but it can be done at home. Today, Steve does his nine-hour “exchanges” during the night.

Transplant
Steve was a good candidate for a kidney transplant. He didn’t have diabetes or heart disease, and he was young and strong. The success rate for kidney transplants is over 90 percent, and the outlook for an extended life of good quality is better than for those people who are on dialysis. “Dialysis is not for everyone. It is very hard on your body,” says Steve. He believes that he is perhaps the longest living home patient on dialysis in the Rochester area. He has been on it for nearly 12 years.

In 1999 Steve received a kidney transplant. It failed. “There are five things that can go wrong with a transplant and they all went wrong for me,” said Steve with a smile. Perhaps one of the worst was that his body reacted to cyclosporine, a drug that was used to suppress his immune system so it wouldn’t reject the kidney. It began to destroy his red blood cells, so he underwent a treatment called plasma pherisis. Steve’s plasma was removed and replaced with donor plasma. In a 2002 news story, Steve told the writer, “This went on for over a year. I had to go each day to the hospital for a long time, then every other day until I could finally stop the treatment.”

There were dark days, to be sure, but Steve plugged along with the help of family, friends, and especially his wife, Erin. He began diving again. Since he couldn’t get his permanent catheter wet, he designed a special “dry” suit that allowed him to go back to work underwater. It includes a padded area to protect his catheter.

The launch
After eight years of planning and building, he launched his submarine, christened the Stinger, and took it on its maiden dive. “My first dive was very interesting,” recalled Steve. “I’ll never forget it.”

After the sub was towed a short distance out into Lake Ontario from the boat launch ramp, he opened the ballast tank valves to take on water. The sub promptly sank like a proverbial stone. It slammed into the rocky bottom with a clang that echoed on shore. He then pulled the lever to blow air into the tanks and the Stinger promptly leaped off the bottom and soared up to the surface like a breaching whale. It took Steve a few sessions to learn how to drive it with finesse. “You have to do it gracefully,” he says with a laugh.

Since then, Steve has used the Stinger for underwater filming for an educational project with the Rochester Museum, for body recoveries in water too deep for easy diver access, and for underwater video inspections in the Finger Lakes. He has also used the sub to give rides, some of which have been to raise money for local charities. “I can take one passenger but it’s pretty tight,” he noted. “About an hour is usually long enough for them.”

The Stinger can stay underwater for up to eight hours. It can travel six hours at 4 miles an hour on its 36-volt battery bank contained in two pods underneath the hull. It’s rated for 1,000 feet (deeper than any of the local waters Steve dives in) and he’s had it down to 600 feet in the Finger Lakes. A main motor drives it forward; two other smaller electrical thrusters that can rotate 360 degrees on either side steer and position it.

Moving forward
Today Steve is hard at work diving for various towns and businesses in the Finger Lakes region. He also teaches, works with kids on water safety and snorkeling, and gives private scuba lessons. The Sea to Sea retail store services and sells scuba gear, along with nautical gifts and books. During the summer and early fall, Steve’s busiest season in the field, the store is open by appointment only.

Steve continues to make plans and nourish his dreams. He’d love to see a museum on diving and underwater wrecks in the area, noting that he has a good collection of antique gear and photos to contribute to it.

There is much that we do not know and understand about this world. There are places right here in our region where no one has ever been, like the underwater places Steve likes to share with others through photos and access aboard the Stinger. Wonders and mysteries still remain around us. One of them is the resilience and power of the human spirit. The doctors told this man with a quiet smile that he’d never dive again. They told him he would never have children. Today he has two daughters. Ten-year-old Madison has traveled in the Stinger with him. Younger sister Jayelle was helping tend the store during my visit.

Steve lives each day as it comes. He may undergo another kidney transplant attempt – he is on the waiting list for a suitable donor. Of dialysis and its effects on the patients, he said, “People are told they can’t do things. But they can.”

For information on Sea to Sea Diving Enterprises, contact Steve Dunning at 315-589-8373.


by Susan Peterson Gateley
Author/sailer Susan Peterson Gately is known for her informative books about Lake Ontario and its surrounding waterways. She and her husband sail aboard their 32-foot sloop Titania on Fair Haven Bay.