By: Sarah Onken
Traveling the world and diving to the ocean’s floor are the norm for Rick Allen. His work in the documentary field has been featured on National Geographic, ABC, CBS, Discovery and more. After a life-threatening accident took his left arm, goals and a good support system helped him dive back into his life and his work.
Rick Allen is a videographer, broadcast video producer, co-founder of Nautilus Productions and a genuinely positive, fun person. Thirty years of deep-sea diving, documenting old shipwrecks, great white sharks and general aquatic life, taught him and his wife, Cindy, to act quickly and efficiently in emergency situations. These very skills kept him alive on a cold January evening three years ago.
On January 3, 2011, Rick came home in the evening and parked his car in the garage. Forgetting about the dive gear he was preparing to service for the winter, he accidently bumped into an oxygen tank used for deep-compression diving. A small contaminant within the tank set of a chemical reaction, causing it to explode. “I was a couple of feet away from it when it exploded, and I just remember this pop, a bright white light and this pressure wave that hit me,” Allen remembered, “It was totally dark. I opened my eyes and I knew exactly what had happened—I knew the tank had blown up.”
The explosion caused the ceiling to come down and blew nearly everything off the walls, including the power box—taking all power in the house with it. After getting over the initial shock of survival, which is rare in this type of situation, he struggled between the two cars in the garage. The garage was getting lighter—lit with the flames from the fire on and around him. Allen recalled, “I am reaching with my left hand, trying to catch myself, and I can’t do it. Finally, I turn to look and my arm is gone.” Realizing the magnitude of the situation, a thought went through his mind, “Wow my life just changed forever.”
After a rushed 911 call, Cindy, who was injured herself, grabbed the nearest fire extinguisher and put out the flames on her husband’s back. Rick made his way across the hood of the car, through the debris and grabbed her hand. Because of their quick reaction time, it wasn’t much longer before, Rick, Cindy and their dog, Lucky, were able to talk their way out of the dark house together.
There was a blur of commotion as friends and neighbors gathered, emergency vehicles approached and someone called for a helicopter, “I have spent 12 years in TV news and you know it is never good when the chopper comes,” Allen laughed. The helicopter transferred him to the Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill. "I remember getting put into the bird and the rotors spinning up. That was the last thing I remembered for two months.”
After he awoke, he could barely move or eat without extreme effort on his part and the added assistance from others, “Your body just atrophies in amazing ways over 2 months, I probably lost over 50% of my body strength,” said Allen, “It was crazy.” His once high-reaching goals became small and short term, “You are so physically debilitated that it is hard to see beyond that very moment,” Allen said, then added, “If you could tell people who are in that position now that there will come a time when they will look into the future and see that things would, for the most part, be okay.”
For some an accident like this might be the end of a story, but for him it was just a hiccup. “I have always been a glass-is-half-full kind of a guy, and new experiences are just fun challenges to me. I like travel, I like new places and I like new things, so this was just a new challenge—something to be overcome or embraced or whatever mix of the two,” explained Allen.
His recovery was driven by his desire to get back to his life and by the support of his family and friends, “You need something you care about and love and that to me was diving in the ocean… I was surrounded by this incredible support structure; I had great friends and family, physical therapists and doctors. I had school kids and churches writing to me, there was just no way on earth I was going to let them down because they put a lot of work into getting me better,” Allen said, “So I was not, in any way, going to fail them.”
The basic mechanical functions of life, from opening a jar to tying a shoelace, became a big challenge for Rick during and after recovery, “There are a lot of things now that just take forever to do, they are maddeningly slow. Patience has never been a virtue of mine,” he laughed, “not by any stretch, and I have had to learn patience on a level that I could not have ever imagined.”
The recovery process for this sort of injury is extensive; however, Rick was deep sea diving that very year, “I told everybody that I really just wanted to get back to my life, and the only way I could do that was by doing physical therapy and swimming and doing the things I do,” explained Allen, “There was no other option really.”
He now sports a mechanical arm made of carbon fiber, stainless steel, titanium and acrylic resin. Allen said, “I told the prosthetist, Derek Frankena, that I had to have an arm that could go in the ocean. I told him, I don’t care what it does but it has got to swim, and he said ok.” Its plier-like hand is less for day-to-day use and more for handling heavy camera equipment, and the materials are slow to erode in a salt water environment.
Since 95% off amputations are lower body and only about 5% are hands or arms, he was a minority within a minority. Because of this, the technology for leg and feet prosthetics has come along at a quicker rate than the technology for arm and hand prosthetics. Allen explained, “Mine is a very basic, mechanical arm. The design is technically turn of the last century, but the materials are state of the art.”
Rick has been a project videographer for 15 years at Queen Anne’s Revenge, the sunken flagship along the coast of North Carolina that likely belonged to the English pirate, Blackbeard. “That has been a huge part of my life,” said Allen. Nearly every weekend, Rick puts on his dive gear, jumps out of a boat and swims around the deep end of the pool. “After diving for 30 years, I kind of have a routine and having the prosthetic arm has thrown that off,” Allen said then continued, “So I have been learning a new routine and, finally, this summer it has kind of fallen into place.”
Nautilus Productions is currently working on a series of videos for Cape Fear Valley and will start working on a new shark film, hopefully, next summer, “I actually got a call today from one of the dive operators and they said, ‘Look we have a couple wrecks with at least 200 sharks on them right now.’ So I am going to go Saturday to see if we can catch them,” said Allen with a big smile, “I will be doing that and, you know, whenever the phone rings, whatever fun thing happens after that.”