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Barbara Stevens

ISSUE 6 ARCHIVE - AT THE CHAMBER

Barbara Stevens

I meant my trip to Grand Cayman to be my return to regular diving after a three year hiatus during which I had my two children. I learned to dive at Grand Cayman nine years ago and absolutely fell in love with the sport. That this was the first and may possibly have been the last place that I would dive, is to me a bitter irony.

I spent a week diving and by the end of it I had forgotten all about the stress of daily working life. That was until the last diving day of my trip. On the first dive of the day there was nothing out of the ordinary: a 100 foot wall dive, the mandatory safety stop, then a slow ascent with plenty of air left but after surfacing I felt a sharp pain in my back. My first thought was that I had strained my back. I managed to get back on to the boat unassisted but it was downhill from there: I got blurred vision, pain spreading from the back all across the midriff, and, worst of all, I lost control of my legs.
Ocean Leisure
Grand Cayman Chamber I will be forever grateful to Rick Bennet and Patrick Weir, the two Divemasters from Nick Buckley's Deep Blue Divers who understood the problem immediately. They recognised DCI and I was given oxygen within minutes. The ambulance was already waiting to take me to the island's hospital when we returned to shore. The Divemasters shouted after me 'Don't worry, you will be fine!'

In hospital I was seen by Denise Osterloh, the most wonderful doctor I could have hoped for. She has years of experience of treating DCI patients and after an initial assessment, I was wheeled into the 'Cayman Hyperbaric Services' Chamber unit. My overriding memory was of the smiling face of Ivan one of the many volunteers working at the chamber. That smile conveyed such warmth and confidence. It is impossible to overstate the quality of care I received while there. It was their support and humour that helped me more than anything to stay positive in those frightening early days.
Barbara Stevens My symptoms got worse during the first session and it was clear then at least to the doctors that I would be in for the long haul. I was diagnosed with what is called an 'undeserved' hit meaning that there was nothing in my dive profile to suggest that I had brought this on. No argument there! I definitely didn't think I deserved it! Who does?

No more diving was the verdict, a bitter pill to swallow. A bubble had caused a spinal cord injury resulting in partial paralysis from the waist down. I couldn't move, feel or operate properly. The only theory as to why this might have happened was that I could have a PFO (Patent Foramen Ovale), an undetected hole in the heart. A test for this condition on my return home was recommended.
Dive Worldwide
In the end I was given 12 days of chamber treatments totalling 64 hours the longest being 7 hours it felt like I was breaking some sort of record. It was startling to see how much the oxygen given under increased pressure aided recovery. Within four days I was able to stand unaided, on the fifth, I took my first step. From then on it was my determination combined with the aid of a fantastic physiotherapist, the support of my friend Margaret (who delayed her return to the US) and the love and help of my husband and daughter (who had flown over to support me) that enabled me to regain the confidence and ability to walk. Two weeks later, I was able to board a plane home assisted only with a walking stick.

Back in the UK, I contacted the London Diving Chamber. Talking to Ben Wilson on the phone, it felt as if my big brother had come to take care of me (and I don't even have a brother!). Ben told me to come down the next day. I was seen by Dr Oliver Firth, the specialist Chamber doctor and he recommended further chamber sessions.

Well, I was a pro by now and Ben, with his Antipodean Blue Man Group and Gemma Klintworth, took excellent care of me. There were further improvements in my condition but after 10 days, progress stalled and my mood plummeted and we called it quits. At this point I had spent over 80 hours breathing oxygen and taking air breaks more time than I had spent actually diving.
I have since had a bubble test done and a PFO was indeed found. It was relief in one way as it gave an explanation for the accident. I am told that it is relatively easy to fix and I am cautiously optimistic that I will be diving again within a couple of years of the surgery. My mobility is still improving and I have been doing a range of treatments, physio, Alexander Technique and acupuncture in a push to speed recovery and to go skiing in February with my family.

If there are some positives to take out of this experience it is seeing the willingness of so many people, both in the Caymans and here, to provide an amazingly high level of care and support. What would I pass on to other divers from this experience is however competent you are, make extra sure you have sufficient dive insurance and always know how close you are to a unit with a hyperbaric chamber.

Finally, a special thanks to Dr. Oliver Firth and Dr. John King who have gone above and beyond their duty to answer every possible question I have had.
Dive Worldwide PNG

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