Three divers get the bends but only one is fit to go to work the next day. Why? Bill Woolford knows the answer now
"Oxygen - use it. It's magic!" Those were the words that stuck in my mind after I completed a first aid for divers course three years ago.
Over a number of years I have witnessed numerous instances of divers displaying the symptoms of decompression sickness. Three of these involved helicopter lift-offs. In the first two cases the lads were well and truly in denial; in the other, the diver had little choice in the matter.
About eight years ago I was diving off a converted trawler south of Bridlington Bay. My mate Geoff was busying himself on a wreck we call the Railway Line, picking up a few lobsters, when his valve became tight.
He decided to ascend, but near the surface the shotline became snagged around the manifold on his twinset, holding him just under the water. Our skipper went straight over the side with a knife and cut him free.
All through the afternoon I kept asking Geoff how he was feeling. "I'm OK - I get a bit of backache now and again anyway," he said at one point. But it was when he told me he couldn't pass water that I alerted the Coastguard. Geoff was lifted off 12 hours after the incident and put into the chamber at Lowestoft.
We later learned that he had ascended more rapidly than we had realised, and that had caused his decompression sickness. He hasn't worked since.
About six years ago another diver, John, was diving on a World War One destroyer from the same boat, with the same skipper. John admits to being overweight, and likes a pint. He was raking about at 43m and getting out of breath.
He came up, got out of his gear and disappeared. "I don't like the look of John," said the skipper. "Go and see what you think."
I made my way down to the accommodation and found John on his side on the bunk, his eyes glazed. Talking as though he had drunk 15 pints, he said: "I'm OK, Bill, just a bit tired." I knew better this time, and called the Coastguard.
John was lifted off and spent six hours in the same chamber. He doesn't dive any more, either. Two cases of denial, and on neither occasion did we have any oxygen on the boat.
During that first aid course, I pulled the doctor aside and asked him about the benefits of using O2, as we were diving deeper and wanted to use it as a deco gas. He put me right about the toxicity at depth of what he called the "magic gas", and we now use it with IANTD tables.
Which brings us to the third case, which occurred on a perfect diving day, with a flat calm sea and sunshine. Ten of us were out in two boats on a wreck called the Nothenborg, which lies in 37m south-east of Bridlington.
My buddy and I frequently dive to 60m-plus, but for this relatively shallow dive we had kept our deep-diving sets on and were carrying pony bottles full of oxygen.
Ian had spent 19 minutes at 41m. After a few minutes of deco on the anchor line he felt a bit heavy, and let go of the line to use his BC inflator. It stuck open and sent him to the surface but, thinking he was OK, he didn't descend again.
On reaching his boat, Ian was helped out of his kit by his two young sons. I surfaced 10 minutes later to be greeted with the words: "Hurry up, Bill, I think Ian's bent up!"
I quickly de-kitted and jumped onto the other boat to find Ian flat on his back. The right side of his mouth had slipped down and his right arm was limp - I assumed that he had had a stroke. Here we go again, I thought.
He could talk a little, which was a good sign. We put him straight onto oxygen; a call for help had already been sent out to the Coastguard.
I took care of Ian's youngsters on the other boat, not wanting them to see their father in this condition. But after 15 minutes or so on the magic gas, Ian started to recover and was able to sit up.
The chopper arrived and I briefed the winchman. They had him on O2 all the way to the chamber in Hull. He stayed there overnight - and was in at work as usual the next day.
The doctor who treated Ian told him that the prompt action of his mates and the oxygen he received had contributed to his speedy recovery.
There were 10 divers out that day, but only two of us were carrying oxygen. It was a lesson learnt. We now use it for any niggle or rash, any suspect ache or tiredness. If you are not using it already, always carry some on your boat.
Oxygen might cost a few pounds, but there is no point hoarding it jealously in the bottle.
Use it, and bear in mind that for all you divers who have been on oxygen administration courses, it never does any harm to get in some extra practice.
Appeared in DIVER - September 2000