THE BENDS - MY STORY
Last week I gained membership to a club I didn’t want to join.
I got bent.
As a diver, decompression illness, or ‘the bends’, is something that happens to someone else and if you do everything right you don’t have to worry about it. Right? Wrong! Even if a diver does all the right things, follows all the guidelines and adds extra conservancy, it’s still possible to get bent. I knew all this, so when it happened to me, I accepted what it was and sought treatment. I’m one of the lucky ones. There should be no permanent problem, but it’s an experience I’m happy not to repeat.
I just did a weeklong trip, diving every day for six days. I used Nitrox on almost every dive and followed conservative profiles. On the last day of diving, I sat out the afternoon dives and my surface interval before flying was 26 hours. About two hours into the flight, I developed a pain in my right wrist. Only mild, about 3/10 on the pain scale, it didn’t change on movement and I couldn’t palpate the exact point. It just ached.
When I landed in Melbourne, I was hoping the pain might magically go away. It didn’t. I called the Diver Emergency Service (DES) hotline and spoke to a diving doctor who confirmed my suspicions and recommended I not continue my journey. I caught a taxi to the Alfred Hospital and presented myself to the duty hyperbaric doctor. He did a set of tests and decided I needed recompression therapy. It was evening, so it took a short while to call in the people needed to run the chamber, but before long, I was being recompressed.
That first session was a five-hour treatment. The pain disappeared under pressure, which pretty much confirms I had a bubble causing my pain. I finished the first session with no pain but some slight alteration of sensation in my ring and little fingers.
The next morning I did another two-hour session and by the end of it, everything felt more or less normal.
Since then, my arm’s been stiff and sore, but I’m told that’s a result of soft tissue damage and it’s improving every day. It’s now four days later and I assess it as 98% normal. I have a slightly altered sensation in my ring and little fingers, which I think is inflammation of the tissues around the ulnar nerve, but it’s not as bad as I used to get when I was cycling (roadies will know what I mean) and I expect it to fully resolve.
So why did it happen? The short answer: because it did.
There are two factors, which I think contributed. The obvious one is that I flew; a change of altitude is a known decompression illness hazard. The other is that I was probably dehydrated. I was aware of the importance of hydration and remember drinking 2-3 litres of fluids during the day, but a combination of tropical heat and the dry air inside aircraft conspired against me.
But the nature of decompression illness is such that there doesn’t need to be a reason. It’s a numbers game. Doing the right thing can improve the odds in the diver’s favour, but statistically, there’s still a chance of getting bent.
Analogies are wonderful tools for explaining things that are hard to comprehend. Diving is like driving. You can get in a car and wear your seatbelt, ensure sure the vehicle is well maintained, drive carefully and comply with the road rules, but if you do enough driving, eventually you will be involved in an incident. Diving is like that.
I’m out of the water for a month; it could be a lot worse. I expect to be back in the water early next year.
I owe thanks to the Divers Emergency Service, Divers Alert Network and the staff of the Hyperbaric Unit at the Alfred Hospital.
A few points I want to make:
1. I did nothing ‘wrong’. My dive profiles were conservative and I followed the guidelines for flying after diving.
2. Everyone I spoke to about the incident was positive. I was concerned I might encounter some finger-pointing or blame, but that hasn’t happened.
3. Acknowledging I had a problem was the best thing I did. Once I did that, the rest was (relatively) easy.
Next time I fly after diving, I’ll wait another day, and drink a whole lot more. Would it have made a difference this time? I’ll never know.