Healing Without Worry

The author was glad to successfully complete his treatment in the hyperbaric chamber. Photo by John Dallaire

DAN Was There for Me

AFTER I SPENT ALMOST 20 HOURS in a hyperbaric chamber over five days, life there had grown tedious. The last 15 minutes, however, were not only exciting but highly instructive. I learned that if you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t touch anything or do anything without first asking permission.

On the last day of treatment I sat ensconced in the area between the chamber’s exterior entrance and the portal to the main tube as a technician gradually restored the pressure to normal sea level. Huddled there in the shrieking semidarkness — the final stage was quite loud due to the rapidly moving air — I felt as if I had stowed away in the undercarriage of a jet. The young nurse on the opposite bench was either smiling encouragement or flat-out laughing as she peered at me over her mask.

And then I learned a lesson: If you overconfidently slap an oxygen mask on your face without checking to see if it has been activated, it could be sucking ambient air out of the room rather than blowing in pure oxygen. The mask instantly welded itself to my face, and I thought it might pull my tongue out of my head. Thankfully, the only thing hurt was my pride. 

The previous four days had been uneventful inside the 20-foot-long (6 meters), 12-foot-diameter (3,6 meters) chamber. Its walls were studded with various instruments, a pressurized drawerlike apparatus to admit meals, and a thick glass window through which a projector can display all the Netflix shows you want. Time there had its rigors. Rather than breathing involuntarily, I had to make a conscious effort to suck in oxygen and blow it back out. Imagine breathing like Darth Vader for hours at a stretch. But I had plenty of time to contemplate the great series of dives we had that week before I suffered a serious case of decompression sickness (DCS).

Every November a group of divers from my hometown of Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, go to Cozumel, Mexico, for a week of diving in the national marine park there. We call our group of about 20 divers the Codiac Seals, though this trip consisted of just myself and eight others. 

Our fifth dive of the week was a real treat. I spent 51 minutes at 60 feet watching turtles, rays, morays, and an astounding wealth of life and beauty, and at the end of the dive I saw my first seahorse! Light rain and a gorgeous double rainbow greeted us when we surfaced. As I was chatting with the lads about the seahorse, my buoyancy compensator started to feel tight. I let out some air — too much — and inexplicably couldn’t find my inflator button.

One of the divers in our group noticed immediately that I was having trouble and asked, “Are you OK, Rod?”

“Nope,” I said. One-syllable answers were all I could manage. I couldn’t move either. 

The guys hauled me onto the stern boards like I was a boned fish. I thought I was having a heart attack or a stroke, but the dive operator’s crew recognized the DCS symptoms and strapped an oxygen mask on me the second I was secured.

“Rod, do you want to go to the hotel?” 

“Nope,” I answered. 

“Do you want to go to the hospital?” 

“Yep,” I replied.

The boat raced to the dock, where the crew and my fellow Codiac Seals got me on a stretcher and loaded me into the waiting ambulance. My blood pressure was extremely high, the world was spinning counter-clockwise, and vomiting between shallow breaths made me feel weaker than a newborn kitten.

After 10 minutes of rapid testing, I was diagnosed with serious type 2 DCS and soon had an eight-hour session in the hyperbaric chamber. I performed a variety of tests: Can I touch my nose? I think I might have poked myself in the eye. Can I walk? Sort of. 

I spent five hours in the chamber the next day and then had two two-hour sessions. During one of those intervals a fellow Codiac Seal named Pierre joined me in the chamber, and I learned that type 1 DCS is not fun either. In all our years of diving together, the Seals had never had a case of DCS, but now we had two. 

Luckily, we made sure that our DAN dive accident insurance was up to date before we left for the trip. Pierre and I shared the chamber only once, but he later told me that another diver joined him there on his second day. Pierre mentioned his DAN coverage to the other diver, who replied, “DAN? What’s that?” Pierre’s chamber companion had to leave his credit card information at the counter to receive treatment. 

Twenty hours in a hyperbaric chamber along with five nights in the hospital and a daily battery of tests and expert treatment cost a small fortune, but I didn’t have to be concerned about a medical bill during my treatment. I firmly believe that not having to worry about the cost of health care speeds the healing process and that purchasing DAN membership and dive accident insurance is the best money I’ve ever spent. AD

© Alert Diver — Q4 2023