My first reality check as a dive professional came after a week of working with a couple. Every day they asked for private dive guides and customized support. They generously tipped every dive professional and crew member to encourage even more personal attention the next day.
After the final dive on the last day of their trip, the husband unzipped his wetsuit, and everyone froze. Surgical staples ran down the center of his chest. He laughed and commented that we would not have let him dive if he had told anyone. A quick check of his medical form showed he had lied about his fitness to dive, and throughout the week he had never let anyone see him without a shirt or wetsuit.
We learned that day that financial incentives and kind behavior kept us from noticing significant and concerning signs. From that day on we paid extra attention to checking every medical form, and staff members took more time to discuss with customers the reality of being safe and how it related to the information on the form.
After several months without an incident, the next reality check surfaced one beautiful morning with calm water and bright sun. We had multiple boats carrying divers for leisurely reef dives. Once we arrived on site, the divers entered the water. A diver suddenly surfaced, seemingly in distress. She was coughing and moving erratically. After a moment she signaled OK, relaxed, and submerged again.
This diver was an average middle-aged woman and had shown no signs of any issues in previous days. The mate from her boat noted where she submerged and started preparing a rescue buoy and line. Within moments the diver surfaced again and fell forward, not moving. The mate immediately entered the water and swam toward the diver’s location as the diver’s buddy surfaced. The mate gave the buoy to the buddy and towed the unresponsive diver back to the boat.
The crew removed the diver’s gear, made the proper radio call to shore for assistance, began lifesaving procedures, radioed sister vessels to pick up the remaining divers, and started toward shore. The unconscious diver started expelling bloody, frothy fluid from her mouth when the mate began CPR. The mate faced a critical decision: Would she perform rescue breaths despite the bloody discharge and not having a pocket mask?
Without hesitation she attempted rescue breaths for the entire boat ride. Law enforcement and medical first responders met the boat at the shore. The paramedics recognized that they could not save the diver but complimented the mate on making the best effort possible.
After the incident, all working parties went to a local facility for substance testing. This policy was part of the dive operator’s standard postdive accident protocol, to which the dive professionals had agreed. Its purpose was to satisfy law enforcement concerns and ensure proper behavior for associated insurance providers.
There were no substance abuse issues, but the testing didn’t include bloodborne pathogens, even for the mate who had potentially been exposed. She and the other dive professionals were surprised to find that she, not her employer, was responsible for that testing. The mate had to drive two hours to a separate facility and was initially financially responsible for the pathogen testing. The operator eventually agreed to cover all her medical testing related to this incident.
Dive professionals are often called upon to provide the best support possible, which sometimes puts our safety and well-being at risk. Appropriate and ethical treatment isn’t always guaranteed for rescuers and first aid providers. Advocating for the employer to take care of an employee who put herself at risk on their behalf was instrumental in ensuring she did not face an unexpected financial burden for preserving her health.
Investigators determined that this diver had also lied on her medical form and didn’t disclose a medical condition and current medication that would have prevented her from diving. Despite all the protocols in place, it’s ultimately up to divers to be honest and ensure they correctly complete the paperwork. Whether divers or dive professionals, we are all part of the dive community. We should do our best to avoid causing risk for others, support each other when problems arise, and help prevent future problems.
© Alert Diver — Q1 2023