Mistakes and Bad Decisions 

A diver floats near the abundant soft coral growth on the Liberty wreck off the island of Bali.

I WAS ON A TRIP TO TULAMBEN to dive the Liberty wreck for three days. The first day was recreational dives followed by two days of technical diving. I had a cold and sinusitis leading up to the trip, but the conditions had cleared up four days before my departure. 

Weather conditions were terrible on the first day. A storm set in, and we had to abandon the third of our planned dives. On the second morning, we headed to the Liberty. I did a leisurely swim before the dive to stretch my muscles. The dives were uneventful, and that night I had a quiet dinner and retired early. Unfortunately, the power went out early, and I didn’t sleep well since it was hot and muggy. 

The following day I woke up feeling sore and sleepy. I did a quick yoga session to ease my sore hips and shoulders. There wasn’t much to see on the first dive that day. 

Before entering the water on our second dive, I had a slight headache and saw shimmering lights. I thought I could fix it by eating something, so I had an energy gel before proceeding with the dive. I’m used to pushing through pain and discomfort on long-distance swims, but I should not have had the same attitude about a dive. 

During the descent I felt a slight pain in my left ear, but I wasn’t alarmed since I usually have some difficulty equalizing. I can generally equalize by swallowing, but I had to use the Valsalva maneuver. When we reached about 100 feet, I noticed the downcurrent suddenly increasing. It pushed us down to about 130 feet, where it turned vicious. I managed to hold on to a rock, but the current didn’t subside, so I kicked my way back to about 115 feet, where my dive guide was also holding a rock. 

The current was much stronger than I thought. Exhausted from the short time it took me to get back, I was panting heavily, and my head was reeling. We spent 10 minutes at 100 feet before heading to our decompression stop. Instead of staying still, I gently finned my way back to the shallows at 20 feet. I was tired and wanted to end my decompression as close as possible to the egress point, which I now realize was a mistake.

Back on the surface, the first thing I noticed was my difficulty breathing. It felt as if a tight belt was strapped across my chest. After a few minutes I started feeling dizzy; when the shimmering lights returned, I knew I was in trouble. I told my dive guide how I was feeling. He asked me to sip water and rest, but when my right arm started tingling and I had trouble clenching that fist, I knew I had decompression sickness (DCS). The dive guide had me lie down in the van and breathe oxygen from a demand valve. My arm felt normal within a few minutes, but I soon developed severe vertigo and had to stop. Every time I turned my head to the left, I felt a huge rush of nausea.

My guide called the dive shop and asked them to call DAN, who recommended immediate treatment. I am very grateful for DAN’s advice, because my guide dropped everything to take me to the hospital. By the time we got there I could not sit up without assistance due to vertigo. The nurses whisked me away to the emergency room and put me on an IV and oxygen. I vaguely remember having an X-ray and being moved to a private room. 

It is a testament to DAN’s efficiency and reputation that the hospital didn’t once bother me about payment. I was on oxygen all night with occasional breaks for air since the hyperbaric doctor wouldn’t be there until the morning. The first thing she did was tell me I would be just fine. What a relief! On the first day I had a Navy Table 6 treatment, after which I could walk unsupported but was still unsteady. I had two more treatments, and although my DCS resolved, the doctor advised me not to fly for a week, so I stayed in Bali to recover. 

If DAN hadn’t stepped in, I don’t know if I would have gone to the hospital that night, and I would have struggled to arrange to get the money for the hyperbaric chamber treatments in time. Three months after my incident, I have no lingering symptoms in my arm and have been exercising regularly in the gym and sometimes swimming. I still have an occasional bout of vertigo, but it’s just lightheadedness more than actual dizziness. 

The doctors say it can take up to six months for the inner-ear damage to heal. Considering everything, I was lucky to get off easy. Things could have been much worse had I not been immediately given oxygen after the first onset of symptoms and if DAN hadn’t been involved to ensure I was in the chamber as soon as possible. Otherwise I might have ended up with permanent damage. 

I am very grateful to the dive shop and DAN for their quick action to get me the treatment I needed.

© Alert Diver — Q2 2022