When To Ask For Help

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Even experienced diving instructors can make fundamental mistakes, a lesson Rick Seymour learned when he ignored the signs of decompression illness

I was working as a dive instructor in Barbados for one of the most professional operations on the island. Life was good, and I was doing what I had always wanted to do – I was living out my dream.

The dive shop was one of the busiest on the island; we had contracts with two cruise lines, which guaranteed us at least 15 divers three mornings a week for a two-tank dive. At lunchtime we had try-divers and then an afternoon dive.

Predictably, most of the cruise ship divers, although qualified, had little experience. Their dives had usually been in the same shallow, current-free waters and the last dives they had made had usually been the previous year. 

At the same time, I was practically running a part-time tour guide business for my visiting friends from England, who were coming out to see me on a monthly basis. I would show them the nightlife, and during the day they were left to their own devices. Life was one long holiday. 

It was a Wednesday night and I had just got home after another long evening entertaining my latest guests. I left them earlier than I usually would, as I needed to get some sleep: I had an early start in the morning. Lying in bed, I started to get a strange sensation on the left side of my face. At first I thought nothing of it, but it just wouldn’t go. It felt as though it was itching from the inside and no matter how much I scratched it, I had no respite. 

At about three o’clock in the morning I had no choice – I was getting extremely anxious, and called the island’s resident hyperbaric doctor. Despite my waking him, he was very accommodating and soon put my mind at ease. After a few questions about my dive profiles, he advised me to stay out of the water for a couple of days and asked me to monitor my situation, suggesting that I had a micro-bend.        

The rest of the night was uneventful and my symptoms subsided. For the next few days I stayed in the office, then resumed diving the following Monday and all seemed fine… until the Wednesday.

The morning dive went without a hitch. After a break for lunch, my open water students arrived from their hotels. It was the last dive of their course and their excitement was infectious – it was going to be a good afternoon.

The dive site was Carlisle Bay, a short boat ride away from the dive shop. It is one of the best novice dive sites I have ever come across: there are three purposely sunk wrecks within close proximity of one another. With a maximum depth of 10m, it’s possible to visit all three wrecks during a single dive. The wrecks are teeming with fish, and due to the site’s shallow depth there is a plethora of colours – the ideal place for new divers.

After completing the required skills for their dive in the sandy areas between the wrecks, we started to make our way back to the boat. As we approached the stern and were about to make our ascent, I suddenly started to see vivid colours which were flashing erratically in front of me. They then disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. Something was not right.

Once everyone was safely on board, I had a word with Roger, the boat captain, who immediately insisted I take some oxygen. I foolishly refused – I was fine, it must be my mind playing tricks on me.

Back at the dive shop, as I was signing off my students’ cards, one of them said I looked as if I was coming down with something, and almost immediately the whole left side of my body went numb. It felt as though I was having a stroke, and the incessant itching returned. I started to feel nauseous, my body was aching and I was getting increasingly worried. Roger drove me to the chamber, which fortunately was just around the corner.

The doctor was waiting for me when we arrived and, having examined me, he decided that I would need to spend six hours in the chamber. It was a small two-person version and I was accompanied by one of the operators, whose job it was to monitor my condition as treatment progressed. It was only a mild case of decompression illness (DCI) but the end result was that I was not allowed to dive for ten weeks, which meant ten weeks with no income. 

Looking back, I can see the mistakes. I had been burning the candle at both ends, and I did not take oxygen, a simple precaution which could have prevented the onset of DCI. For the sake of my pride, I made a decision which in all likelihood cost me ten expensive weeks out of the water. Embarrassing though it may be, a short spell on oxygen can save you a lot of problems in the long run. 

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