Just Another Day at the Office

What started as just another routine day at my favorite Florida Keys dive site ended with a five-hour hyperbaric-chamber ride at Mariners Hospital in Tavernier, Fla. As a recreational diver for 15 years and a dive professional for three, I’ve been through all the required training, I’ve read and reread the manuals, I read Alert Diver and several other dive publications, and I do my best to learn from others’ mistakes. I consider myself a conservative and prudent diving instructor, but I still wound up in the chamber after two relatively shallow dives.

That day my job was to guide eight certified divers on two easy reef dives. Knowing that the group consisted of novice divers, I gave an extensive briefing on the way out to the reef and another quick one to reiterate the safety protocols just before we were ready to splash. I instructed the divers to do weight checks while holding onto the tagline, as there was a moderate current running on the surface. If they were properly weighted, they were to descend into a sandy bowl under the boat and wait for me there. Four of the eight followed instructions and patiently awaited my descent.

One buddy team had let go of the line during the weight check and was now drifting away. Then, as the last pair entered the water, one of them went into full, active panic — regulator disregarded, mask thrown, thrashing and climbing onto me to stay afloat. “I’m going to die! I’m going to die!” he said over and over. I responded as I was trained to, inflating his BCD, replacing his regulator and mask, and ensuring we remained connected to the boat via the tagline.

Headshot of woman wearing a wetsuit and baseball cap

The struggle on the surface lasted quite a while as the rescue line was being used for the pair that was drifting down current. After instructing the two buddy pairs still on the surface to get back aboard the boat and sit that dive out, I was finally able to get down to the four divers who were still waiting for me under the boat. Sixteen minutes had passed, and although I didn’t feel exhausted from the rescue, I now realize it may have had a significant impact on the rest of my day.

After that dive, the nine of us regrouped for a discussion on safety protocols and the importance of listening to briefings. We moved to a new site, and after a short surface interval, I was ready to splash with seven divers (the diver who panicked earlier was still sprawled out dramatically across the deck of the boat). His buddy — who, like him, was 6.5 feet tall and about 300 pounds — soon proved to be an in-water disaster himself. He had no control over his buoyancy and crashed repeatedly into our nationally protected coral reef, kicking off obliviously, too focused on snapping photos and running into other divers. Despite the fact that he was a foot taller than me and more than twice my weight, I yanked him off the reef, adjusted his buoyancy and administered a brief underwater scolding. He rolled his eyes and headed off in the other direction, breaking off a large piece of staghorn coral on his way. I turned my head to check on the rest of the group, and when I turned back the diver was gone. He had power-inflated himself to the surface.

The diver floundered in a horizontal position, trying to make air escape from his BCD and ignoring my signs to get vertical and descend. I surfaced, told him to not leave my side for the rest of the dive and initiated a controlled descent onto a sand patch. Moments later, he was back on the surface. For the rest of his dive he continued racing to the surface or crashing uncontrollably onto the seafloor while I continued ascending to help him back down or descending to lift him off the bottom. Luckily he sucked down all his air relatively quickly, and instead of surfacing for this “diver” one last time, I stayed below and watched the rescue line pull him back to the boat. The rest of the group seemed as pleased as I was, and we continued our dive.

Forty minutes into the dive, I began to feel a strange pain at the base of my skull. Something was wrong. I recalled the divers and signaled it was time to ascend. True to that group’s nature, two out of the six followed directions, while the other four looked me in the eye, looked at their gauges and swam off in the other direction. I surfaced and left those certified divers to their own devices.

As I climbed the ladder to get back on board, everything looked strange, as though I was looking out through someone else’s eyes. The pain was still pulsing in my head, and although I wasn’t sure what was going on, I went straight to the oxygen unit and put the mask to my face. The first mate was quickly by my side asking questions and handing me water. That’s about when the tingling began. We called ahead and arranged for transportation to the hospital to be waiting for me at the dock.

The hospital was confusing, with different doctors and nurses coming in and out of my room telling me I was going for this test and that test. After blood work, a chest X-ray and a CT scan, they informed me I was going for a chamber ride — a five-hour U.S. Navy Treatment Table 6. “Is this really happening?” was the one question that kept coming
to my mind over and over again. My dives had been fairly shallow, and although there were many ups and downs, all my ascents to the surface had been slow.

One thing I knew for sure was that DAN® was with me every step of the way — and DAN has been with me throughout the aftermath. Nothing is scarier than opening a medical bill that amounts to more than your annual salary and reading that it needs to be paid in full by the end of the month. My amazing representative, Denise Mulkey, talked me off the ledge and assured me not to worry, that she had my back and that this would all be taken care of. Without DAN I would have lost everything simply because I was doing my job.

© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2013