scuba diving doctor

Scuba and Scrubs

By Guest Blogger Claire Novelly

Comparing my experiences in the medical field and scuba diving – learning that the two worlds aren’t so far apart after all!

Air on? Check. Scrubs donned? Check. BCD inflated? Check. Scrubbed in? Check. Computer on? Check. Gloved, masked, and gowned? Check. Divers ready? OR team ready? Enter the water. Begin the procedure.

A Scuba Diver and a Medical Professional

I never thought that diving and working as a physician would have something in common (except for maybe treating the occasional bends patient). I always pictured scuba divers as free loving, peace sign wielding, suntanned, wear-shoes-only-when-necessary kind of people. I thought physicians were Type A, meticulous, notorious planners with God complexes. A part of me would have thought the two mutually exclusive. Turns out, I was wrong.

The reason I felt this was from my personal experiences. My brother and I have personalities that are in a lot of ways, opposite. So, when he got scuba certified in Curacao when he was 13 and I was 11, it was no surprise that I didn’t really want anything to do with it. I said I would stick to snorkeling. He was the extroverted one who would take risks with a “jump then fall later” attitude towards most things. I was more introverted and calculated in my actions, and although I could usually be persuaded to follow in my big brother’s footsteps after seeing him do something, I remained steadfast in my decision to stay on top of the water, not under it. I always thought I had the personality of a physician. I’m a planner, observant, and more analytical. I look for scientific answers and follow procedures with detail. So, in my naïve mind, I thought “oh I’m the doctor, not the scuba diver.” Little did I know, these two worlds aren’t so far apart after all.

Differences In Medicine and Scuba

The beep of a dive computer. Slow your ascent, you’re going too fast. The beep of a heartrate monitor. Pressure’s dropping; is the patient bleeding out? In either of these cases, you would witness its listener whip their head to the source of the beeping and analyze, knowing a critical situation could be in the works. Divers and surgeons have to be hypervigilant in their every move and in their surroundings. Where is my partner placing his scalpel? Where is my dive buddy? The only difference is one requires communication through hand signals, the other through spoken language. Both diver and surgeon have memorized the steps they must take to accomplish their task. They could perform their duties in their sleep. Every equipment check and every suture—they have studied for this moment.

Similarities In Scuba and Medicine

In the operating room, there is something called a “time out.” This is performed before the operation begins when all personnel are in the room. Someone runs through a checklist confirming the patient’s identity, the procedure to be performed, the body part it is to be performed on, pertinent patient information, anticipated difficulties, etc. The checklist is verbalized and confirmed by the surgeons in the room before they even lay a finger on the patient. Too many errors have been made involving operating on the wrong patient or performing the wrong procedure. The time out forces everyone to take a step back and hold each other accountable, because as much as some surgeons would hate to admit, operating is very much a team sport—like scuba diving.

In diving, before you enter the water, you should perform a “buddy check.” You have already completed the check yourself before and during the set-up of your own dive equipment, but once you have suited up, you face your dive buddy and you should check his equipment. You make sure the air is on, the BCD inflates and deflates properly with different valves on the vest, and that air is flowing through both regulators. You turn on the dive computer, check all buckles, straps, and weight pockets, and make sure your buddy has a mask, fins, and snorkel. This equipment is your lifeline, and if it fails underwater, your buddy becomes your new lifeline. The ocean is an unforgiving place, and if you’re not prepared for every possibility, you’re better off not going at all.

Skills to Pay the Bills

The more I thought about diving and the medical field, the more I realized there are skills that you learn in each discipline that can help you with the other. I never thought scuba diving would help me be more prepared for medical school, but I was wrong. The last two times I can remember feeling nervous were 1) my first ocean dive and 2) starting my third year of medical school. Coincidentally, I found myself drawing on my diving experience in order to help me with my nerves starting my next chapter in medical school.

In April 2021, I was finally about to start my third year in the hospital and take on new responsibilities taking care of patients and working with the hospital teams. This was going to be very different from my first two years where I had studied every muscle, bone, and nerve in anatomy lab, memorized countless drug names and functions, and labored over the Kreb’s cycle for the fifth time in my education. In your third-year rotations, you finally get to apply what you learned your first two years. You start to feel like a “real doctor.” Every day is different, which is what makes it exciting, but it’s also what makes it terrifying. You have to think on your feet, you’re constantly changing services with who you’re working with, and you have absolutely no idea where anything is in the hospital. It’s a whole new world.

A month before, in March 2021, I went diving with my brother in Islamorada, Florida. He is a very experienced diver and dive instructor, whereas I had only been scuba certified for a year. I had about ten dives under my belt, but they had all been just with my brother in some nice, calm springs in Florida, where the most threatening thing you encountered was a small, soft-shelled turtle named Virgil who got in your face sometimes. You don’t even have to jump off anything, you just slowly walk down a staircase. For my first ocean dive, I was really excited, and a little nervous—it was an entirely new experience for me.

Scuba Time

The first day we were supposed to go out, the charter got canceled because of high winds and seven-foot swells. The second day, the charter decided to go out, and we were expected to have five-foot swells. But the sun was shining, the water was turquoise blue, and I was ready to do my ocean dive. The ride out to the dive site was rough. Have you ever meticulously assembled your dive gear while being bounced around on five-foot seas? How about putting on a skin-tight wet suit? Not fun. When we stopped moving, it was worse. The boat was moving up and down like a see-saw. Luckily, I don’t get seasick. I can’t say the same for some of my fellow divers on the boat.

The boat dropped anchor, and in a daze, I remember suiting up and putting on all of my dive gear. I looked out at the roaring sees and thought, “you want me to willingly jump into that?” I looked around and thought that at least I’d get to see some other people jump in before me, so I could see how it’s done. Nope. Did I mention I was the least experienced diver on the boat? The captain pointed to me and said, “you’re up first.” Oh great. So, I hobble over with my 50 pounds of dive gear to the edge of the boat where I look down into the choppy seas, and my heart is racing. In that moment I had two options 1) chicken out or 2) jump on in. I took a breath, and then I remembered I wasn’t doing this alone. There was a dive master in the water waiting to help me after I jumped in. There was another dive master on the boat in case anything happened. The captain was holding onto my tank before I leapt in, so I didn’t fall. And my brother was right behind me. I looked at the dive master in the water, who gave me a reassuring nod, and I jumped on in. And I must’ve looked a lot more confident doing it than I felt, because after I was in the water, the captain said, “I like this chick, she’s no bulls***.”

I “swam” (more like thrashed around) towards the buoy and held onto the rope attached to the boat. After my heartrate settled down a little, I stuck my face in the water, looked 60 feet down onto a reef at the bottom of the ocean where I was about to be in a few minutes, and I realized what I was about to do was pretty amazing.

All along my way through medical school and my time underwater, I’ve come to appreciate how things are different from what they look like on the surface. Sometimes you have to dive in in order to appreciate the beauty and extraordinary experiences that are waiting for you. My preconceived notions have been uprooted, and I’ve come to appreciate that there is a science and an art to everything—medicine and scuba diving included.

To Conclude

All of this is to say, there are going to be some tough, anxiety provoking, unexpected situations that life throws at you. And I’m a planner. I like to know what to expect when I’m going into a situation, and I want to prepare for every possible outcome. But that’s not realistic. You can’t predict and prepare for five-foot waves on your first ocean dive. You can’t prepare for every patient that will die, or every senior physician that asks you a hard question. You just have to trust yourself, and trust that you’ve trained and prepared as much as you could have, and whatever you didn’t prepare for, you can figure out along the way or ask for help. Whatever you get wrong, you learn from. Because you’ve got a whole team behind you—someone in the water ready to help, someone holding on to you so you don’t fall, and family behind you. There are some exciting and nerve-racking things you can do in this life. Whether it’s scuba diving or being trusted to take care of patients, I’ve realized you can take what you learn in every aspect of your life and weave every victory you have into those new challenges. And once you take the leap, you realize that not everyone gets to do what you’re about to do, and that feels pretty special when you think about it.

Claire Novelly is an SDI Advanced Open Water Diver with plans to pursue her career as a physician in either Aerospace Medicine or Undersea/Dive Medicine. She can be reached via email at cnovelly@umich.edu

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