Ear Some Advice

IHTM Ear drum

When it comes to equalising, don't ignore the warning signs

It was early autumn and I went diving with a couple of friends in a lake near my home in Feldkirch, Austria. It was my hundred-and-something dive, and the site we chose is one of my favourite lakes, not so much for what there is underwater, but because it's a pretty spot. We'd dived there many times before, and this day there were four of us: an instructor, two friends of mine (one woman, one man) and myself. 

We did two nice dives. There are two shipwrecks in the lake which we explored. The visibility was okay, and we were enjoying our time and our diving. 

After a short break, we decided to go for a third dive. This time I asked my friends if we could switch buddies. After diving with my female friend for two dives, I wanted to do the third dive with my other friend. We decided my instructor and his buddy would dive in front, with my buddy and I following them. 

We started our dive and when we reached about 12m, I felt pressure in my right ear.  I'd never had any serious problems with my ears or with clearing my ears before - not on the two previous dives that day, nor on any dive before that. So I just carried on descending. I slowed down a little, though. 

A few metres deeper, I decided I couldn’t go any further as by this point my ear was really aching. Now I guess my buddy made a small mistake, too. He wasn’t close to me. In fact, he was about a metre deeper than I was – too far away for me to reach out to him.

I wanted to go back up, but I felt like I had to get my buddy's attention and tell him. As I couldn’t reach him from where I was, I clenched my teeth and went down. The very moment I reached out to him (at about 16m) – boom! I literally heard my eardrum burst. It didn’t hurt, though; the only thing I felt was dizziness. I couldn’t tell where left, right, up or down was.

I grabbed hold of my buddy and with my other hand waved a circle in front of my eyes, which was supposed to tell him that I felt dizzy. Then I just held onto him.

At that moment I was very glad we'd both done so much training: how many times had we practised rescues and bringing our buddies back up to the surface? It was worth it, because that’s exactly what my buddy did. I just kept my eyes closed and held onto him. Back on the surface I felt like everything was okay. I wasn’t dizzy anymore, I could hear, everything seemed fine. But luckily my buddy took the lead and made me get out of the water. Soon I started shaking. Usually, my friend isn’t the caring sort, but at that moment, he really looked after me. 

When our buddies got back from their dive, we didn’t tell them the whole truth for neither of us realised the severity of the situation.

On the way home in the car it got harder for me to hear and understand what people said. And a weird, reddish fluid was coming out of my ear. 

The next day I went to see an ear doctor who confirmed my eardrum was perforated. There were two big clefts. The cold water had got into my tympanic cavity - my middle ear. This caused my dizziness and lack of orientation. 

My hearing suffered and I had to go through hundreds of listening tests. I also couldn't get my ear wet three months and it was another month before I was allowed to dive in the pool, and even longer before I got the all-clear to dive in open water. 

Though I’d never want to go through this experience again, I'm grateful for the lessons it taught me. My first mistake that day was continuing to descend when I felt pain in my ears. I should've stayed where I was, or even ascended. My next was trying to reach my buddy when he was a metre below me – could I not have waited until he checked on me? I could even have tried to get his attention using my torch or by waving my fin at him.

My buddy learnt a lesson too, about keeping close to your buddy, and later blamed himself for the incident. But I feel lucky he was by my side that day because he helped me out and prevented the situation escalating. 



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