Dreams and Nightmares – A DCI Hit

by Becky Schott:
decompression diverI was scared, and I’m not afraid to admit it. My whole life and all of my dreams flashed before my eyes. I knew the day would come, just not this early… or maybe it was long overdue. Either way, it happened. I kept rewinding the day’s events in my head looking for a reason. Life is full of grey areas and this was no different. It was the day I took an unexpected, Decompression Illness (DCI) hit.

As an instructor I teach decompression sickness can hit anyone at any time for any reason. I preach conservatism and staying in shape, and not smoking or drinking. As a technical diver we are taught the risks involved in diving activities and accept them, but do we really understand what that means? Are we just in denial thinking, “It can never happen to me”? Well, when this happened I was 26, in shape, and I don’t drink or smoke. I plan my dives conservatively, yet still found myself in a chamber thinking – how did I get here?

As a child I dreamed of diving all over the world. I learned to scuba dive at the age of 12. I knew instantly I wanted to be an instructor and dive my whole life. Moving forward in my dive career I came across cave diving and fell in love with it at 17. I enjoyed planning out my dives and using mixed gasses, staging and decompression. I became an Instructor and taught diving through college and after graduation. The whole time working two jobs and taking all of my college classes and still finding time to cave dive in my spare time. Still, I wanted more. I found my calling with filmmaking and photography and took the steps to get to where I am today. It wasn’t an easy path and I worked extremely hard to follow my dream and I can’t imagine doing anything else. My biggest fear in life has always been: what if I could never dive again? What if? And that’s what I thought about for the long 7 hours in the hyperbaric chamber on March 9th 2009.

The dive was a fun cave dive at Ginnie Springs in High Springs Florida. A place I know and have been diving for years. This was my second cave dive of the trip; the first dive was two days before that with the previous day off. We planned on doing a long swim dive, no video cameras or scooters, just a leisurely swim dive. We joked about how little we had to carry to the water. My buddy Dave and I were both diving CCR and our total dive was 3.5 hours of bottom time running a 1.1 PO2. I did a stop at 15 metres/50 feet and at 12 metres/40 feet. After that I completed my computer’s decompression at 9 metres/30 feet and 6 metres/20 feet. At the 6 metres/20 foot stop I pushed my PO2 up to a 1.4 but left the computer set at a conservative 1.1 and did 20 extra minutes of decompression. I was very comfortable and it was generally a really good dive. I made a slow ascent up to 2 metres/7 feet where we swam back to the exit. We hung out a few minutes before walking back to the truck and chatted with some other divers for about 15 minutes.

It was at that point I started feeling a cramp in my right knee. I thought, “Well we just did a lot of swimming so it must be a cramp”. I looked down at my leg and it was purple marbled and felt itchy and just after that, it felt like someone stuck a knife in my knee and twisted it sideways! I kept thinking it would go away just like one of those horrible leg cramps you sometimes get in the middle of the night. This didn’t go away. I started breathing oxygen and felt no different but the marbling went away. I always thought oxygen would make the symptoms subside so maybe I’m not bent? I drank lots of water but it started hurting worse and now I couldn’t even walk. It was time to call DAN and get to a chamber.

The staff finally got me into the chamber a few hours later; by this time the pain was indescribable off of oxygen, and really painful on oxygen. It’s amazing how much it escalates the longer you wait.

hyberbaric chamberBefore I knew it they were pressurizing me to 20 metres/60 feet. I thought, “Finally this pain will subside,” yet this is another misconception, thinking that once you got in a chamber and you were put back under pressure the pain would disappear. It took over an hour for me to start to be able to move my leg. I did a table 6 with 3 extensions at 20 metres/60 feet. An extension is a cycle of 20 min on oxygen with a 5 minute air break. After every cycle of oxygen, I began to feel a little relief. They put on a movie that I didn’t watch and just let my mind wander. The 7 hours went really fast. When I was finished I still felt a little stiff and achy, but I also had been awake over 24 hours and was exhausted. I went home and went to sleep. When I woke up I felt the pain coming back a little, not as bad but it wasn’t gone. I went back for a second chamber ride and another table 6. That seemed to take care of it.

hyberbaric chamberI encourage anyone who thinks they have symptoms of DCI to call DAN and visit a chamber. It can’t hurt anything and dive insurance is worth every penny.

You know I wake up today and I feel like it never happened, like it was a bad dream, yet I feel the phantom pain in my knee letting me know it was very real. I remember that night and how it felt, and I really don’t want to ever go back. I’m not going to quit diving or technical diving and now it’s a very real thought that it will probably happen again sometime in my life. Not because I’m more prone to it but it’s simply decompression theory and our bodies are all different and change day to day. At first I was a little embarrassed about getting DCI, but then I started sharing my story. I found out so many people I know have been to a chamber in their diving careers that I had no idea about. It was becoming more common than I knew, many of their hits after very short dives, some long dives, not necessarily deep or extreme. It made me feel better to ask them questions and hear their experiences and that’s why I’m sharing mine with you.

I will continue to be conservative, and stay hydrated on long dives. I now do a much longer 10ft stop and try to stay warmer while decompressing. It was a cool spring day and there were 5 or more divers that visited the chamber at Shands after me that week. I want to learn from others’ experiences and hopefully we will come up with better dive theory so we don’t have to see the inside of chambers for a long time!

becky schottI can’t imagine my life without diving. It defines me and it’s the only thing I think about and want to do. That day I was scared and getting back in the water was also scary. Maybe it was just a reminder that we are all vulnerable even if we do it right, even if you’re conservative, in shape and young. My worst nightmare didn’t come true that day but every so often I get a twinge of phantom pain in that right knee, just a reminder that we are all susceptible and not to take any of it for granted.

Safe diving everyone!
Becky Kagan Schott, TDI Instructor, Liquid Productions