A Case of the Bends
In SCUBA class, we had to study all sorts of esoteric stuff designed to help us grasp that our human bodies are A) not designed with gills, and thus B) our bodies are subject to, well, all sorts of esoteric stuff when we SCUBA. Like Henry’s Law. I got that one on the test, no problem: If inert gas is forced to come out of solution too quickly, bubbles form inside the body and are unable to leave through the lungs causing the signs and symptoms of the “bends” which can be itching skin and rashes, joint pain, and sensory system failure.
Some people struck by the bends can be partially paralyzed. Some people have been completely paralyzed. Some have died. And some, like me, got really, really lucky.
I was 25, in great shape and an experienced (I thought!) diver, and decided to visit West Palm Beach in Florida for some wreck diving. Near the end of a fairly stressful dive in barely manageable current to 80 feet on an old freighter, I found myself abandoned by my buddy-of-the-moment. Most of our little group had already headed for the surface, so I made my way alone to the anchor line and began to gently move hand over hand along the line, maintaining my 1 foot per second rate of ascent, like a good girl. Rising at this rate is designed to allow those nasty gasses to stay where they are and not form a bubble in an inconvenient place, like at a joint, or along the spine. Of course, it didn’t help that the current was trying to pry me off a line that would go from almost slack to a snapping tautness as the boat, far above, rode 5 foot waves.
I was kinda freaked in the turbid water. I couldn’t see the surface, I couldn’t see the bottom and so at one point I cupped the line in one hand and the next thing I know I was snatched up along the line like a leaf blowing in the wind.
When I saw the bottom of the dive boat crashing into the waves above me, I braked on the line and thought “Hmm, I wonder if I’ve come up too fast?” No time to dither, I needed to get aboard, someone was hanging onto the tag line off the stern of the boat waving at me to hurry up.
The group enjoyed a short surface interval (well within the safe limits, for all you divers out there), then popped overboard for a short dive on a shallow reef. An hour or so later, I was back in the NoTell Motel room, sitting down for a sandwich, when I was suddenly struck with nausea, dizziness, slurred speech and a narrowing of my peripheral vision. When I registered numbness in my fingers and toes, I suspected I might have a problem.
Luckily I had a (non-diving) friend with me, and I managed to mumble instructions to call the nearest recompression chamber, which I knew was just a few miles up the road. We were told to get there fast, to be met by a dive physician and a recompression team. What an ordeal! I was immediately given oxygen to breathe (in-between bouts of tossing my cookies into a convenient bucket) and given some sort of blood thinner shot while the physician carefully questioned me about my dive profile. How deep? How long? Did I come up too quickly? (uh, well, I think so, yessss…) Another dive? How deep? How long?
The oxygen helped clear my head but let me tell you that shot did some weird things to, um, all of my mucus membranes. They were- all of them mind you – stinging like a hoard of bees, which was another unwelcome distraction.
I was muzzy-headed as the team worked out a recompression profile and popped me into the chamber, which I idly observed looked just like they do in the movies and on TV. Big. Tubular steel. Cold. Daunting.
A diver attendant was locked in with me and the pressure was on. Literally. I was told to lie down on a cot squeezed into that tiny space and the attendant gave me a heavy telephone handset which I barely managed to keep to my ear. All I wanted to do was sleep but the weirdly echoing voice in the headset kept hectoring me to stay awake and answer questions ranging from what my name was to who the president of the U.S. was at the moment. I remember looking through a small, thick glass porthole at a blurry face and thinking “What the hell is this, civics class?”
Meanwhile, my poor recompression buddy was in a great deal of pain- he had a head cold and was having a real struggle to equalize his ears. After a few minutes the pressure was raised, he was locked out and I was left alone to go back to listening to the banging and hissing of the chamber being pressurized to different depths. I breathed oxygen, yakked on the phone and fought off sleep with silly answers to questions.
My apparent sense of humor was reassuring to the team, so after an hour or so when I complained of being hungry, they raised the pressure, brought in a tray of something yummy that I don’t recall, then it was back to the depths. Somehow I managed to eat, take tokes from an oxygen mask, yak on the phone, and keep my face near the porthole so they could see me if I passed out or worse.
Four hours later, when I was finishing up the paperwork for services rendered, I listened closely as the dive physician explained that although I was well within the safe limits for depth, time and so forth, my little ride up the anchor line had likely caused a bubble to emerge somewhere near the base of my neck. Wow. Close call. That could have meant paralysis from the neck down. But, I was lucky enough to be recompressed quickly and to receive what I fully appreciated was the very best medical care. I was pronounced hale and hearty and sent on my way, to fall exhausted into a 12 hour sleep.
The best advice I got that evening was to limit myself to dives to 60 feet or less. After all, a diver can travel the world and see many things within the sport diver limit of 60 feet. I was reminded that the dive tables were developed for Navy SEALs, strapping big guys, and not for people of my smaller frame (I was 5’5”, 120 lbs at the time), and I would be safer to just avoid such depths- and perhaps to avoid diving in high currents. Sound advice, which I have striven to follow ever since.