issue Winter 2023

Recovering Lost Souls

By Dawn Rhodes
CJ Fisher, PA ’24, at Sunrise Beach in Lake Bluff, Illinois, in October 2022.
Photo by Michael R. Schmidt

Preservation is a guiding principle for CJ Fisher, PA ’24, a mission that’s taken her from underwater diving to explore the remnants of a sunken slave ship to pursuing a career in medicine.

Miss Fisher’s passion for marine mammals drew her to the water. Eager for more opportunities to dive, a family friend connected her with an experienced instructor who led a program for young divers in Florida.

She didn’t find out until later the program was Diving with a Purpose, a nonprofit that trains divers to find, document and preserve historic underwater artifacts relating to the African diaspora. Since 2003, the organization has trained hundreds of divers with a particular focus on shipwrecks from the Middle Passage of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Miss Fisher’s diving experiences steered her toward health care, which she said “has been able to combine preservation, advocacy, science and hospitality in the right way for me.”

Photo provided by Miss Fisher shows her documenting a site.

The throughline from diving to medicine may not be readily apparent. Miss Fisher sees parallels between the trauma, exploitation and degradation of enslaved people and the ignominious history of medical care for vulnerable people that breeds mistrust toward physicians. Both as an underwater researcher and a health provider, her role is to be a preservationist.

Through diving, “I’m preserving a culture, a story, a history that would otherwise be at the bottom of the ocean,” Miss Fisher said. “This means a lot to me, because I think it’s preserving a family, a life, a person, especially people of color who have such difficult relationships with medical providers and people they can’t identify with culturally. It is still quite apparent in society.

“You cannot be a good provider if you’re not willing to preserve the cultural significance for a patient.”

It’s been a circuitous route for Miss Fisher to find her place.

Originally from New Jersey, Miss Fisher studied at six undergraduate schools and initially wanted to be a shark biologist. Ask her anything about sharks.

“That was my big thing,” Miss Fisher said. “I love sharks. I’ve been diving with sharks. I have so much footage of me down there with sharks — touching sharks, feeding sharks. I love it all.”

Underwater archaeological exploration for slave ships wasn’t on the radar, but she was “totally enamored” with Diving With a Purpose and jumped to get involved — which meant she had to learn to swim. After a few months of near-daily training, she was in the next cohort of divers heading to Florida.

Miss Fisher and fellow underwater archaeology advocates concentrated on a five-mile stretch near the Florida Keys to search for the Guerrero, a Spanish ship that wrecked in 1827 with 561 enslaved Africans on board.

While records on enslaved people are lacking throughout history, everything about the Guerrero “down to the nails in the ship” was meticulously documented, Miss Fisher said.

“It was so well documented, because it was a business,” she added.

Miss Fisher and fellow divers first trained in the classroom to learn how to scrutinize and document what they could see underwater.

“I’m preserving a culture, a story, a history that would otherwise be at the bottom of the ocean ... You cannot be a good provider if you’re not willing to preserve the cultural significance for a patient.”

“Contrary to what cinema would have you believe, when a ship sinks, it doesn’t just sink in one piece; it is torn to pieces. Wood is strewn for hundreds of miles. You’re lucky if you find artifacts within miles of each other,” Miss Fisher said. “So a lot of the educational component was on land, studying how to recognize unnatural shapes, colors underwater. … They don’t just stand up and look like an artifact. Coral grows over it. Plants grow over it. Animals participate in its degradation.”

Once in the water, the divers split up to tackle different quadrants along the designated search site. Equipped with waterproof paper, pencils, tools and compasses, divers map out what they see, sketch it and bring the information back to lab scientists to evaluate. If they determine something is a remnant of a wrecked ship, the expert researchers will dive to remove it from the water without disturbing the marine life, then analyze it in the lab.

Along with diving, underwater advocates received lectures on African history, archaeology and marine biology.

“The more you learn, the more it sits with you,” Miss Fisher said. “It’s not a job you can do and be removed from it. You have to have the context, the education. You have to understand the significance of what we’re doing and why.”

Arc of a Diver

Miss Fisher continued participating in Diving with a Purpose while in school in New Jersey, later transferring to a school on the Gulf Coast in Florida to concentrate on marine biology. She studied abroad in Honduras and Cuba, spending a month aboard a Cuban research vessel to contribute to a report to the Cuban government advocating for the preservation of the area’s marine life.

But within weeks of finishing school with a degree in biology, Miss Fisher said she knew it wasn’t the right fit.

“I worked in our marine mammal pathology labs, so I was doing autopsies on manatees and dolphins and all that, which was great, but I was by myself in a lab all the time,” Miss Fisher said. “I love science … and I knew I loved people, and I wanted to keep doing something where I interact with people.

“And the PA profession kind of checked all those boxes with the experience that I had, the expertise that I had, the interest that I had.”

Miss Fisher (in floral shirt to the right of center) with her fellow Diving With a Purpose underwater archaeology volunteers.

After three years of taking additional courses and applying to graduate programs, Miss Fisher enrolled in RFU’s PA program in May. She’s also pursuing a master’s in public health.

When she was alone with her thoughts and sounds of breathing underwater, Miss Fisher dove into the space where thousands of enslaved people drowned for economic gain. Around 12.5 million Africans were forced into more than 36,000 slave voyages between the 16th and 19th centuries. An estimated 500 to 1,000 of those ships sank, according to National Geographic.

“It’s particularly important to highlight this dark time in history because it helps to explain the current mindset that people of African descent have now,” Miss Fisher said. “People don’t understand how traumatic events travel through bloodlines. Just because mistreatment happened decades ago, it’s still very apparent.

“As a provider, it’s worth working harder to build a connection with a patient who might come off as difficult or noncompliant, because there’s a lot of extenuating factors that might be affecting them that you’ve never experienced or been aware of. You can provide the care that is needed — it just takes a little more effort.”

In carrying that tragic history with her, work to preserve the stories of people who have died can overlap with the mission to safeguard a patient’s health and autonomy.

“A lot of medicine is viewed as giving orders and expecting a patient to follow. … But it separates us from the outcome of this degree, which is to take care of people,” Miss Fisher said. “If you have a lack of cultural understanding and connection … a patient might be less willing to take orders from you. How do you address these barriers, how do you preserve their language, their autonomy, their culture while preserving their health?

“I carry that with me, because I understand what that looks like when a person is not preserved and a story is not told … left at the bottom of the ocean, so to speak. I say that as a medical provider who wants to see their patients flourish.”

It wouldn’t have happened without Diving With a Purpose, Miss Fisher said.

“This program, I wouldn’t be in the medical field without them,” she said. “I have a responsibility to preserve and to advocate for people who need it in the best way I can in the way that interests me the most.”

Dawn Rhodes is a Chicago-based writer and editor. She’s worked in journalism for more than a decade.