Shortly after I began scuba diving in 1995 I has hounded by this almost constant thought, or even an urge, to dive to 600’. Perhaps it is merely because my last name is Six and for some completely unexplainable reason it has always seemed to be my go to number.
On two previous occasions I had safety divers and boats ready to make my deep dive only for the plans to fall apart from various life interruptions. I think this was probably for the best since it forced me to get even more experience and the time to build and thoroughly test out my bailout rebreather (BOB).
The opportunity came up again with both the logistics and support to attempt my deep dive. I made the commitment to do it and regardless of life issues this time, it was going to happen. I had one safety diver have to drop out due to medical needs and another one was not quite ready for the depth previously planned. I ended up with one deep support diver at 500’ and the rest above 200’.
The island of St. Croix was the location with deep walls extremely close to the shore. The dive shop SCUBA (St. Croix Ultimate Underwater adventures) and their tech operator (Mark Nevin) were all setup and ready for the week diving and they handled all of the logistics both perfectly and professionally. Mark is one of the hardest working guys around and I wish I could have gotten to know him better but he was even filling tanks for customers at night when the rest of us were eating supper.
We all arrived on the island on March 11th and Mark met us at the airport. We did the usually car rental and located our condo. Mark already had all our tanks filled and we began setting up our gear and analyzing mixes. Our first dive for me was meant to be a simple shallow dive to around 200’ just to make sure all my gear was properly configured and no issues were found before venturing any deeper. As per my usual method of operation, everything was so stellar that I dropped to 413’ with a total runtime of 77 minutes.
The next day I stayed above 90’ with a total runtime of 69 minutes. I was shallow and solo as the other explored the depths of the wall. So far so good.
On the third day everything began just fine and the issues of me working my ass off in the surf to gear up had been sorted. My team shuffled gear to me as I waited in chest high water to gear up. This made life much easier for me and my mind and body were much more relaxed than the previous two days. We all swam toward the ledge and my deep support diver (Marty Watson) began the descent after both confirming OK. Marty stayed directly above during the descent and just before 500’ were both confirmed OK again before I continued alone.
Up until this point everything was still going exactly as both planned and expected. Very shortly the wall began to be less than vertical and I found myself having to kick to swim away and keep from hitting bottom. I was not expecting this until somewhere in the 600’ range and was not really prepared for it yet. I had planned to drift away from the wall slowly, well in advance of 600’.
This was the first in the chain of events that occurred. The swimming became harder and my breathing rate increased to the point that my ADV would not keep up. This lack of loop volume and my quick descent very soon became uncomfortable. I intentionally have my ADV set so that it is a little difficult to fire and takes extra effort to pull it open. In this case I was having more difficulty firing the ADV so I took an extremely forceful deep breath to make it flow. This caused a mild pain right in my sternum area but added a bit of gas. A second breath was still needed and this hurt again. By this time I was reaching for both my MAV and inflator to abort the dive. By the time I had arrested my descent and turned to come back up, I was at 610’. I did notice that the WOB was slightly elevated even with such a high percentage of helium.
I began my ascent and signaled Marty with my light. We met at 500’, did the happy dance for reaching 600’, and started up. My first deco stop was at 220’. When I reached 110’ the minor uncomfortable feeling in my sternum turned into a full flamed extreme pain. It was so intense that I looked to see how much time I had and if I could live that long. It was easily one of the worst pains I have ever experienced. The thought of spitting out my DSV actually entered my mind briefly. I immediately headed to a outcropped rock to grab for support. I soon found that if I breathed very shallow the pain was not as bad. I moved to the sand and literally laid there without moving. Marty know something was wrong and I wrote about the pain on my slate. I slowly crawled up the sand as my deco stops cleared. The pain was gradually diminishing as time went by.
When I crawled up to 50’ I could feel a thermocline and felt instantly warmer. Next I noticed that my hands and arms were still the same temperature. No problem my legs need more circulation since they have just been laying there since 100’ or so. It felt really funny when I began to move my legs and my upper body twisted rather extreme for what I expected. I reached down to my thigh to see if my leg was caught on something. I was greeted with even more horror when I realized that not only was my leg numb and I could not feel it, but my right leg was completely paralyzed and not moving like the other one was.
By this time, Marty had signed over his support tasks to Mark, and I wrote to Mark that my leg was numb and not moving. He suggested raising my PO2, but I replied with “Go back down”. He signaled OK and I turned and crawled down the slope as fast as I could possibly go. Upon reaching 100’ my legs began tingling and moving again. All problems went away almost instantly. I dropped another 10’ to 110’ and stayed there a few minutes before beginning another ascent. Mark was super vigilante the entire time. The rest of deco was uneventful with the exception that I began to get cold in the last several minutes.
I cleared deco and ascended. My team helped with gear again and I walked out with now symptoms what so ever. I was feeling great. A few minutes into loading up and my legs began to get a bit wobbly and it progressed slowly as we loaded up, went to rinse gear, and headed back to the condo. We stopped at a grocery store and my walking was so bad that bystanders must have figured I had drank too much. Once back at the condo I took 3 aspirin and went on oxygen for a couple of hours. I felt fine but my walking kept getting worse. I felt the urge to urinate but could not do so. I forcefully tired with no luck. It was not long and I looked down to realize that I had urinated in my pants. This was when I was forced to abandon the denial and go to the ER.
When we got to the ER, I needed a lot of help to get inside. My legs were almost useless at this point. Huge thanks to Marty for being my advocate and getting me seen promptly. Marty and Isabelle had to literally drag my inside. My right leg was completely gone at this point. .I was evaluated and taken to a chamber rather quickly.
6 chamber rides over 4 days. Living in the ER, ambulance, and chamber gets pretty miserable even for this short of a time. After the second treatment, I finally began to have some movement and feeling in my right leg again. I showed improvement with each treatment.
When I was finally released, I was able to walk again but not 100% stable yet. I took my scheduled commercial flight home and began follow care at home.
It has taken me 3 months to be able to stop self-catheterization and urinate somewhat normally again. I have had to make changes in my diet to be able to avoid constant laxatives and be able to poop somewhat normally again. Sexually speaking, that was another death which had me extremely concerned. Fortunately it was one of the first functions that returned to a normal capacity. This is something that most people do not share. It is both personal and extremely scary. I am willing to share it because if you are thinking about taking a similar risk and being prepared for a DCS incident, then I think you should know ALL about it. Think about wearing a urine collection bag on your leg with a Fowley catheter inserted, wearing a diaper, and not being able to walk. You could very well become much like an infant and have to learn how to do these things all over again like I did.
I will be out of the water for another 3 months at a minimum or until I stop showing any signs of improvement.