My Last Dive

Fifteen years ago I took scuba lessons from a dive shop in Surrey BC so I could go on a dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef. It was February and the ocean waters were 10°F colder than the wet suit I was using was designed for. I am a small, slight woman (under 5 feet and 100 pounds) and a poor swimmer. I find the standard scuba tank that is used everywhere (i.e., aluminum 80 cu. ft.) to be very heavy and cumbersome. With full scuba gear on, I have 'turtled' several times. On the ocean dives I did during my open-water course, I was freezing and the wetsuit was so tight I felt like I was being strangled. I had to be rescued on each of the four training dives. At the end of the course they passed me, even though I assured them they shouldn't. I felt very incompetent. Two months later I dove the Great Barrier Reef, had the time of my life and never dove again until this year.

This January I had an opportunity to dive in the Grand Caymans. I thought the warm water and the fact that the dives were mostly shallow would let me relive the Barrier Reef experience, even though I had a nagging anxiety about diving again. Because I had lost my certification card and retrieving it wasn't going well, when I got to the Grand Caymans I took an orientation course at a local dive company. For four days I dove with the instructor monitoring me, all the dives no deeper than 40 feet. I was a little nervous but once down I felt in control and exhilarated like before.

On our last day before leaving my certification documents came through. I would be able to dive with the pros: a deep morning dive and a shallower afternoon dive. I was excited but very nervous. When we got to the dive site I was horrified by how rough it was. As I said, I am a poor swimmer and with the buoyancy compensator device (BCD) inflated, I felt like I couldn't breathe. My dive buddy was my sister who had qualified the year before and was on her first dive trip. She doesn't share my fear of the water and was totally pumped for the dive. I couldn't let her down. (I had been holding her back all week.) I went into that water with a mounting panic. As soon as I inflated the BCD I felt breathless. The waves were going over my head and, even though intellectually I knew I could get air through the regulator, I felt air hunger. I clung to the down line but someone kicked off my mask. While I was trying to fix it, the signal to descend was given and everyone was leaving me. I was frantic. I couldn't find my sister and the dive leader was not responding to my assurance that "everything was NOT thumbs up". We descended to about 60 feet and the dive leader started leading us into deeper water. I felt suddenly still. I began to drift up. I was aware I shouldn't be going up but couldn't stop myself. I was calm but helpless and continued upwards past an exquisite giant tortoise. The tortoise was to be my last underwater close encounter.

When I reached the surface reality hit. I was being thrown around in the swell, lost my regulator and couldn't get to the boat. Fortunately one of the other dive leaders had followed me up and got me to the boat. They tried to get me to hand up my gear but I couldn't follow their instructions. I was choking on water and nothing was making sense. I remember being hauled into the boat and stretched out on the deck. They administered oxygen and I lay with my head in the lap of a rookie leader. I lay there for 30 minutes while the group completed their dive. I was aware I couldn't move my right arm although I had the sensation that I could feel myself touching my body with it. I couldn't speak and I do remember thinking how curious all these symptoms were. I remember having a blissful indifference to all of it. In fact, when the others were all on board and the dive leaders asked if I wanted to go home or to the hospital I tried to say "home". My sister realized something was seriously wrong and insisted I be taken to Emergency. The boat was met at shore by an ambulance. After I was loaded in the ambulance I have no further memory until 12 hours later when the ER doctor told me I had had a stroke, likely due to a hypertensive crisis. He said I had a large bleed into the left parietal area of my brain and there was no treatment but I would have to be transferred to Miami by air evac. I was hospitalized and monitored at a Miami tertiary care hospital. After five days I had improved enough to take a train home.

Six months later, I have mild numbness in my right side, take anti-hypertensive meds, and have just returned to work. I am a retired RN. I worked most of my career in Intensive Care and Emergency. Although I retired three years ago, I went back to work and have been on an intravenous (IV) team. I was very worried I wouldn't be able to do the job any more because of the lack of sensation in my right hand and fingers. I am thrilled I seem back to normal enough to do the job. However, my image of myself as an invincible, medication free, healthy woman has been shattered. I want to believe that the panic attack and the pressure of the water on my arteries combined to produce a blood pressure capable of blowing an artery. I need to believe I will not have a repeat on dry land. I hate taking medications. I hate having a medical history of stroke. Mostly, I wish I had listened to that voice inside that said, "don't do this dive".

Jan K.

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