It happened to me

A Hole In The Heart Strikes


A PFO can strike even after the perfect profile, but as Diane Kermack found, it needn’t be the end of your diving

My husband, John, and son, Peter, were set to go on a liveaboard trip to the southern Red Sea organised by our dive club. However, Peter didn’t have much diving experience, so we decided to go to the National Diving Centre at Chepstow for a few dives to build his confidence.

We set off with other members of our dive club on a bank holiday weekend in May. Things went well: Peter went for a dive with another member of the club, Jeff, while John and I did a 27m dive. We had taken extra full cylinders with us, and so, after our surface interval, John, Peter and I decided to do another dive as a threesome. We dived to 26m; again, all went well. We swam around the base of the cliffs and came across the sunken garden gnomes at 17m at the end of the dive. Peter set about picking them up and making sure that they were all pointing in the same direction.

Suddenly my ear started to hurt. I have experienced this before, but my ear always reverts to normal on ascent at the end of the dive. I tried to clear my ear by going up and down while slowly and pinching my nose and blowing. It seemed to work, but I still felt uncomfortable and I indicated to John that I wanted to go up. He signalled to Peter and we slowly ascended together. I thought nothing more about it, other than slight irritation because we still had air for more dive time. We were taken by minibus up quite a steep slope from the water to the car park, and as we travelled up the slope, my chest started to hurt; however, I did not think much about it, and began to drive us home.

Peter is at university in Bath, so we planned to drop him there before joining the M4 and heading back to London. However, the M4 was blocked so we went via Bristol. As we crossed the Severn Bridge, I started to get strange visual effects – a migraine was coming. I pulled into the service station to change drivers and my vision cleared, but I still felt a little peculiar. We continued on our way and stopped at a supermarket. For a split second, my eyes seemed to be focusing differently. I stood still for a moment but the sensation passed – I wondered if I had imagined it, so said nothing to the others. As we continued to shop, my skin started to itch, particularly my arms, shoulders and lower back. I put this down to wearing two undersuits.

We got back in the car and headed for Bath. When we reached the M4, I began to feel really unwell: a second migraine started and my vision got very strange. I made John stop at a garage near the top of the hill. By now I could not see, walk or talk properly. It dawned on us that I was suffering from decompression sickness, so John called the London Diving Chamber. The journey along the M4 to the chamber was horrible: I had a severe headache and was sick.

Some five hours after the dive, at 8.45pm, we arrived at the chamber. The doctor saw me immediately. He examined me and did some neurological tests that I promptly failed. He explained that I had a rash, a skin bend and had bubbles in my brain, hence the migraine. Following an intense series of treatments in the chamber, I made a full recovery.

Our dive computers had been examined, but nothing could be found to account for the bends. I had not drunk alcohol the night before, I was not dehydrated and my blood sugar was not low. The doctor said that he was fairly sure that the only explanation was that I had a patent foramen ovale (PFO) – a hole in the heart.

Following this diagnosis, I had an operation to close the PFO, and a check-up three months later confirmed that the hole had closed properly. I was able to resume diving six months after the operation.

I learned that if you feel perfectly well before a dive but feel ill straight afterwards, you almost certainly have a problem, even if you made no mistakes and dived a perfect profile. One in four people have a PFO, so if this happens to you, remember what happened to me. 

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