How Are Your Divers Feeling?

Divers Alert Network has decades of experience helping divers in emergencies — and with decades of experience comes decades of stories and lessons you can share with your students and apply on your upcoming dives. This story features DAN’s medical professionals assisting an injured diver who made a series of unfortunate and preventable mistakes.

DAN received a call via satellite phone from a person concerned about her bunkmate after a series of dives earlier that day. Her bunkmate was exhibiting symptoms that suggested decompression sickness: pain under her left breast and right shoulder, skin bends, numbness in her leg, nausea, and a brief loss of consciousness. The diver had a total of 40 lifetime dives and was completing her advanced open water certification. She was using rented equipment and was not familiar with the dive computer. The diver had completed four dives to deep depths (24 mts -80 feet- and deeper) that day. Her symptoms actually began after her second dive, but she continued diving. At the end of the last dive she had followed the instructions of her divemaster, who insisted that she not fulfill her dive computer’s decompression obligation, which was likely a significant contributor to this apparent DCS event.

Of course, it’s crucial to follow your dive computer’s recommended decompression, and a dive professional should never encourage a diver to ignore safety protocols. Remind your divers to be aware of any symptoms after diving and take them seriously. They shouldn’t wait for someone else to report their symptoms — with DCS, time is of the essence. Ignoring symptoms of DCS can exacerbate a relatively minor event into something more serious or long-lasting. Another factor that contributed to this event was the lack of an emergency action plan. Rather than relying on the diver’s bunkmate to call DAN, the dive operator would ideally have been aware of how its divers were feeling after diving. This lack of awareness may have been detrimental in this case, as an emergency action plan implemented shortly after recognizing the signs of DCS could have spared this diver from experiencing more severe symptoms. Having an emergency action plan is especially important while diving in a remote location, as proper medical assistance may be hard to access.

When a diver rents a dive computer, be sure to orient them to its features and settings. Although the DAN medics quickly realized the seriousness of the situation, the remote area the diver was in meant that the closest medical facility was 18-20 hours away. DAN promptly dispatched a speedboat to rendezvous with this diver, yet even the speedboat’s trip would take five hours. DAN helped facilitate the assistance of the local navy, which sent a rescue helicopter to transport the diver. The injured diver arrived at the medical facility in bad shape; she was disoriented, in hypovolemic shock, and had skin lesions and signs of spinal cord and brain injury. However, the diver gradually improved with treatment and continued follow-up care.

This story illustrates the importance of compliance with safety protocols, having emergency action plans, keeping an eye on your divers, and recognizing — and decisively responding to — signs of DCS.