Nobody goes to a hyperbaric chamber by choice – right? Wrong!

Hyperbaric Chamber

TDISDI led a group of technical and recreational divers on a chamber ride, by choice. Our goal: to reduce anxiety about the need for a chamber ride and to experience Narcosis in a fun adventuresome manner. Some even said – I don’t get narc’ed! – Sherri Ferguson, director of the facility had fun with that.

Treatment in a chamber for being bent is not shameful and divers should not be frightened of the experience. So says Executive Director of the Simon Fraser University Hyperbaric chamber facility, Sherri Ferguson who offers a half day chamber experience enhanced by having divers experience Narcosis and a decompression stop using oxygen.

The university chamber is located in Vancouver, Canada and is the only chamber in Canada used solely for research. The services and training programs are designed to simulate a wide variety of extreme environmental conditions or equipment malfunctions that may be encountered routinely or accidentally by individuals . From pressure testing fuel cells or other equipment housings and conducting human physiology studies, to training commercial pilot students to recognize the signs and symptoms of hypoxia with simulations in a controlled environment, Simon Fraser’s research programs are varied and diverse.

The Class “A” Hypo/Hyperbaric complex contains an Entry Lock (EL), Main Lock (ML), and Wet Pot (WP). The unit can be pressurized to 1,000 feet of seawater and a vacuum can be drawn to 100,000 feet above sea level, the equivalent of the atmospheric pressure of Mars. The ML will accommodate up to seven participants (including one inside tender) and contains four fold up bunks for longer duration or sleep tests/studies. Individual Built in Breathing Systems (BIBS) for both oxygen and other breathable gas mediums can be connected so each participant has their own mask to breathe from, reducing the risk associated with an oxygen enriched environment within the chamber. Loud speakers installed in the EL and ML ensure that all participants can clearly hear instructions from the operators.

Our seminar actually started a week earlier with background information on DCS and the dos and don’ts using a chamber. We could not wear perfumes, hair gels or piercings due to the risks associated with an oxygen rich environment.

On the day of the chamber ride everyone arrived anxious and excited. The session began with a fun and informative lecture that involved 12 divers actively learning about the theory of Narcosis, decompression, oxygen pressures, medical conditions and other uses of chambers followed by an explanation of how chambers operate. Afterwards, off with our clothes! We changed into scrubs, an additional safety measure to ensure divers did not inadvertently wear or carry flammable items.

After a briefing at the actual chamber by the on duty doctor and the tender operator, the riders were split into two groups. I know the split was because of the space restriction but I really think it was to allow each group to watch the other as they became narc’d in the chamber. You could really see what each person was going through and how they reacted in various ways.

Each of us climbed into what looked like a submarine from a movie with the bunks on either side for us to sit on. A tender joined the group in the chamber. The door was closed. Tension was high. The group was excited but quiet as each listened to the instructions. The chamber would pressurize and slowly drop down to 160 ft. You had to hold a ‘thumbs up’ gesture to indicate that you could equalize your ears both descending and ascending. It got very hot and steamy. Picture yourself as being inside a scuba tank…..we all know that as you add pressure, the tank heats up and that is exactly what we felt. Pressure increased as we descended just like a normal dive without, of course, wet suits, masks and heavy dive equipment. Although some did bring their dive computers.

What happened at depth? Nothing. No fish, no coral, no current and no bubbles. What happened was Narcosis, displayed in its’ various forms. It was fascinating to observe and experience., an opportunity you don’t normally have when diving. It was the dive computer that really made the experience real. It proved that we were at depth; this was a real dive. We hovered (ok, we really lounged in our seats) at 160 ft for about 15 minutes watching the computer display real decompression time. We tried a memory game to remember words printed on cards. Not a complicated task . There was a lot of giggling and laughing. From the Narcosis, hidden parts of personalities emerged that we hadn’t seen before from people who new each other well. Fortunately our tender and Sherri kept everyone in line. By the way, when you talk at 160 ft you sound like a chipmunk and the air is so dense that you can’t whistle, further increasing the giggle factor. You know that you are making a fool of yourself, but you don’t care. Soon it would be the other group’s turn.

What happened on the ascent? Think again of the scuba tank example. It became very cold. As the pressure dropped, we were told the temperature dropped from 80F to 50F. An ascent was made to 30 ft where everyone donned oxygen masks and slowly decompressed. The group became very hushed. You could hear the breathing. It was a chamber full of oxygen breathing Darth Vaders until the chamber operator announced that decompression was complete and we were returned to the surface.

Each of us slowly internalized what had just happened. I remembered on my last deep dive looking at my computer 3 times, over and over, to have the depth and time information really register. I now knew why. It was because of Narcosis. At depth some of the group expressed uninhibited emotions by being verbose while others were withdrawn and pensive. Because of Narcosis. No one could remember any of the words on the three displayed cards. Because of Narcosis. From beginner to expert Narcosis had become real. Not to be feared as we now know what to expect, but to be respected and managed.

What a way to learn about a decompression chamber! Learn and experience Narcosis in real terms, complete a decompression dive and have some fun. But the lessons were and are real. It wasn’t just the supposed drunk feeling but the inablity to think and remember. And decompression is not a bad thing. Staying longer on a safety stop or for decompression divers, not rushing up after the oxygen at 20 ft is a good thing. But now if you do get a hit, a visit to the chamber isn’t so terrifying. Like when a doctor gives you a prescription when you are sick, the hyperbaric chamber is a great prescription to help divers beat decompression sickness.

A fun and adventuresome way to learn a serious business. TDISDI and Simon Fraser does plan to continue to offer more opportunities for divers. Groups can contact either TDISDI or Simon Fraser hyperbaric chamber for more information.

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