Do Something!

My husband, Doug, and I were diving in Cozumel. I was 56 with about 100 lifetime dives, and he was 61 and a newly certified diver. Doug has controlled high blood pressure and some allergies. I took a refresher course with him when he took his open-water certification class, and in it we learned lessons about buddy diving that would later prove invaluable.

Doug weighed 240 pounds, so as a new diver with a wetsuit he used more than 20 pounds of weight. I still struggle with my own buoyancy issues and uneasiness about currents, and it was overwhelming at times to be looking out for my buddy, too. We had a successful week of diving until the last day, when Doug had difficulty descending. Later I found out he had removed some weight without communicating the change to me.

Our group usually descended together, regrouped on the bottom and then began the dive. Doug and I always descended within reach of one another. During our descent on the last day of the trip the current had begun to separate Doug and me when the divemaster signaled that everyone should descend on his or her own. By the time Doug and I regrouped on the sandy bottom at 70 feet, the rest of the group had already made their way over to the wall we would be diving and begun descending on it. We began swimming toward the top of the wall against a heavy current.

A moment later I felt a touch on my head and turned to see a thumbs up signal. I blindly followed Doug as he ascended — I didn’t know what was going on. I could see he was watching his gauges. I never saw his face until we were just about to surface. He was slightly above me, so I had been looking at his stomach the whole time. I don’t know why, but I never thought about what might be happening.

A man rests in a hospital bed paired by two female medical professionals
Douglas Kirk recovers in the hospital after experiencing acute pulmonary edema during a dive.

At the surface he turned toward me and started to mouth words. A pink frothy foam filled his mask and came out of his mouth. I guess my training or experience kicked in as I screamed at him to inflate his BCD. He rotated away from me, and I grabbed for his inflator button. I inflated his BCD until air flowed out of the dump valves.

I waved my arms at the boat and screamed, “Medical emergency!” — I didn’t want the crew to think we just didn’t feel like diving. From there the events became a blur punctuated by clear snippets of reality. Doug was still facing away from me. His head bobbed with the swell. Maybe he was just resting. I will never know why I didn’t turn him toward me, why I didn’t look at him. Maybe if I didn’t look then this would not be real. I handed off Doug to the crew. They pulled and pulled, but he wasn’t moving. I stared at the ladder.

Finally the crew began to make progress hauling up Doug, who was still wearing all of his gear. When I saw the integrated weights of his BCD, I remembered, “drop the weights.” He was moving so slowly I had plenty of time to remove each weight and place it on the deck. I removed his fins and then my weight belt and fins. I was so proud of myself. I placed all the gear on the deck out of everyone’s way and didn’t lose any of the rental gear. Then I looked up and saw the ugly truth. Doug was unconscious and a ghastly gray color, with his head hanging to the side. This was real; this was happening to us.

I saw a crew member getting the oxygen, and I instinctively started pushing on Doug’s chest. I saw and heard the oxygen tank. “Wait, my mom uses oxygen,” I thought. “There shouldn’t be a whishing sound.” I continued pushing on Doug’s chest. Each compression produced more pink foam from his mouth. I wanted him to be neat and clean, so I kept lovingly wiping the foam away.

I tried to fit my mouth over his nose and mouth. “Damn, why does he have such a big nose?” I thought. “Oh yeah, nose and mouth is child rescue breathing — mouth-only for adults.” I performed the rescue breaths. I didn’t feel much or see his chest rise. I provided more chest compressions, and more foam came forth. I performed another rescue breath. “How long should I do this? What if he survives with brain damage?”

During the third cycle I felt something different; it must have been a breath finally going in. “Had I been doing it wrong?” I thought. Then a gasping breath came from Doug’s mouth — then another breath. He was breathing. It was gasping, labored breathing. “Should I have done the CPR? Was it too long?” Later I learned drowning victims can have reflex laryngeal spasms, which can block rescue breaths.

The crew didn’t know what to do; they had set up the oxygen cylinder incorrectly, and all the oxygen leaked out. No one else took charge, so I did, albeit badly. Somehow I rolled Doug onto his side, and after what seemed like an eternity I looked up and saw we were at a dock. The boat had pulled up at the closest dock to the dive site, a small hotel/condo complex in south Cozumel. “Why wasn’t any one helping us?” I thought. I jumped up and screamed to the building for help.

Doug was breathing but still unconscious. He remembers regaining consciousness as he was placed into the ambulance (which had arrived a few minutes after our boat docked). The saga continued with an eventful ride to the hospital that included the ambulance getting a flat tire, us flagging down a passing SUV, stuffing all 6 feet 2 inches of Doug into the back of it and then discovering the road we needed was closed for construction. I couldn’t believe I saved his life on the boat and he was going to die on the side of the road.

Fortunately, we made it to the hospital, where Doug was diagnosed with pulmonary edema. After two days in the hospital, lots of diuretics and repeated lung X-rays, he was released.

We learned a lot from the experience: Complete a refresher course, always stay close to your buddy, know how to administer oxygen, stay current with CPR training, and purchase the best DAN dive accident insurance.

Doug is fine today, and we have completed several dive trips since the incident. We have taken CPR classes, and I am now certified as a rescue diver. We are grateful every day for a second chance.

© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2016