Severe DCS in the South Pacific

I’m a 61-year-old woman in good physical condition. I’ve logged around 400 dives and am conscientious about my dive planning and safety. On a recent trip to the South Pacific, I had an experience I would not want to have gone through without DAN®.

Almost immediately after we rolled into the water for our first dive on the second day of our trip, my husband, Michael, our dive guide and I got caught in a strong downdraft current that quickly pulled us down to 96 feet. We put air in our BCDs and kicked vigorously to stop the descent. Fortunately we escaped the downward current, but we then found ourselves in an upward current that quickly carried us back to the surface. This dive lasted less than three minutes.

Contrary to our intuition, we followed our guide’s lead, got back in the water and did a dive to 71 feet for 57 minutes. After breakfast and a long surface interval, we spent another 67 minutes among the most beautiful soft coral I’ve ever seen, diving to a maximum depth of 80 feet. On our third dive, after lunch and another long surface interval, we encountered more strong currents. We swam hard to reach a pinnacle, sometimes kicking forcefully without making progress. The dive guide had to grab my hand and pull me along for a bit. Once we made it to the pinnacle, we tied in with our reef hooks and got a bit of a respite. We were treated to schools of sharks and thousands of beautiful fish, but this dive was still 47 minutes of exertion.

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We got back on board the dive boat around 4 p.m., and within moments I felt a severe pain in my neck and shoulder. I knew something was very wrong. Soon I was unable to move my left arm, hand and fingers. The crew administered oxygen and considered the possibility of both decompression sickness (DCS) and a stroke. The cruise director called DAN, which recommended turning the ship around and making the four- to five-hour journey back to shore. Fortunately, one of the guests was an obstetrician and another was a nurse. They were very comforting and helpful as they monitored my condition during the journey back.

When we finally made landfall, I had to board a small tender in huge swells and pouring rain. On shore we met a taxi, which we understood would get us to the clinic much faster than an ambulance would. The crew showed Michael how to change the oxygen tanks en route.

We began the three-hour nighttime journey to the hospital on a curvy road in driving rain. This is when things got really scary for me: During the drive, both of my legs went completely numb. It started at my feet and crept upward. I sat quietly, thinking of every person I knew and saying a silent goodbye to each as tears streamed down my face.

When we got to the clinic, the doctor and nurse who operated the chamber weren’t there. The staff told us the doctor wasn’t coming in until the morning, so I turned to Michael and said, “Call DAN.” He did so, but not before insisting that the hyperbaric doctor get to the hospital right away.

The doctor arrived a little while later, around 2:30 a.m., and I told him my joints ached, I had a headache, I couldn’t move my left arm or hand and both my legs were numb. He said he would put me in the chamber in the morning after the nurse who operated it arrived — around 9:30 a.m.

During Michael’s conversation with DAN, the medic advised him that the chamber where we were had not complied with recommended upgrades. Based on what he had heard and seen, Michael decided to get the ball rolling on an evacuation. DAN put Michael in touch with a hyperbaric doctor in Brisbane, Australia, who told him that I should not go into that chamber. As night turned to day and morning turned to afternoon, Michael worked nonstop with DAN and the dive resort manager to arrange transportation to Auckland, New Zealand.

I flew to Auckland aboard an air ambulance jet, which was pressurized to sea level. The flight lasted four and a half hours, and I arrived at the navy hospital close to midnight. At that time my whole left side wasn’t working, and it had been 32 hours without food or sleep since the symptoms began. And I was still salty from diving. The doctor told me the long delay to treatment might mean a long, difficult or even incomplete recovery. I cried about the prospect of a bleak future. Without wasting a moment, the doctor quickly assessed me and got me into the chamber. 

When I got out the following morning — almost six hours later — my hand could move, and my arm could bend. The prognosis was improving.

Later that afternoon I went back into the chamber for another two-hour session. This time the results were even better — I could stand with assistance and move my hand and arm. 

I continued hyperbaric therapy through the weekend and had my seventh treatment the following Monday morning. By then I was walking with supervision but no assistance. My left leg was, and still is, tingly. A neurophysiologist worked with me on strength, coordination and balance. These problems persisted for weeks, but I diligently did my exercises. The doctor said the damaged nerves could take weeks or months to heal.  

I am deeply grateful to be alive and moving normally. I love my husband and family beyond words and will never take them for granted again. When I travel internationally, I will call DAN beforehand to locate the closest hyperbaric chamber that treats divers. (Note: DAN encourages divers to first go to the nearest medical facility rather than the nearest hyperbaric chamber since not all chambers accept divers or are staffed 24/7.)

Never get in the water with a tank on your back without having DAN insurance. DAN helped us seamlessly get through this ordeal: They got a doctor on the line and continually called us back throughout the first night. They helped us make decisions. They helped Michael get flights to New Zealand and found lodging for him there. DAN provided coverage and paid 100 percent of the eligible expenses. Thank you, DAN.

© Alert Diver — Q3 2017