‘I began to feel unwell – dizzy, dry-mouthed and nauseous. I got back on the boat and noticed my hands were shaking violently’
‘I didn’t ring my family until the treatment had finished. I didn’t want to hear my mum’s voice until I knew the outcome.’
I am a naturally cautious person, but when I was 26, my ex-flatmates persuaded me to quit my design job in London and move to Australia. Ever since I was a child, I’d been obsessed with sharks and, after nine great months working in Sydney, I decided to head to the Great Barrier Reef to go diving. I signed up for a PADI course with the most well-known company in the area, and after learning the basics, we took a seven-hour boat ride out to the reef for a three-day dive.
We saw giant rays, schools of parrot fish and, on the final morning, white-tipped sharks. I was so excited I had finally achieved my childhood ambition. But as I returned to the surface, I began to feel unwell – dizzy, dry-mouthed and nauseous. I got back on the boat and noticed my hands were shaking violently. Something was wrong. I had just learned about decompression sickness, when nitrogen bubbles form in the bloodstream and tissues of the body. It’s caused by moving too quickly towards the surface of the water, where the pressure is lower. The symptoms, which can be deadly, fitted what I was experiencing. But as I had been at only 10ft and had come up very slowly, the diving instructors insisted it couldn’t possibly be that. There was only a 1:38,000 chance. It must be dehydration.
By early evening, paralysis had begun to spread throughout my body – I couldn’t feel my arms or legs. The crew, still convinced I was dehydrated, gave me some oxygen and told me to sleep. I spent the night unable to move, so exhausted by what was happening that I was almost beyond worrying, and I began wondering who would have to tell my parents I had died.
In the morning, I felt slightly better. I later learned that having oxygen and lying down can temporarily alleviate the symptoms. By the time we returned to shore, however, the vomiting and paralysis had returned. Back at my hostel, I called a dive helpline and the doctor confirmed what I had been dreading – decompression sickness. I was driven to a tiny hospital in the bush. The nurses there were panicked by my condition, which heightened my fear.
The next morning I was transferred to Townsville. But not by ambulance – there weren’t any. Instead, I had to make the five-hour journey on a rowdy tourist bus. The hospital staff, horrified to see me arrive on foot, confirmed I had neurological bends (when the bubbles from the nitrogen go to your brain and spinal cord which is what causes the paralysis) and put me straight into a hyperbaric chamber – a metal portal that looks like something from a Bond movie. It was very hot and noisy, like being in an overheating engine room. I had to wear a heavy flight mask, which fed me pure oxygen. This would shrink the nitrogen bubbles and I would then breathe them out.
Each gulp of oxygen was torture – like sucking on an incredibly harsh cigarette. By the end of the first day, I was so tired and in so much pain, I couldn’t imagine how I was going to cope with the next five days. For the first few nights, the paralysis would reappear – first in my knees, then my arms. I would drag myself to A&E – I was a day patient, so I had to stay in a nearby hostel – barely able to walk, terrified the treatment wasn’t working, only to be told I had to just wait it out. It was the tissue reacting to receiving oxygen.
I cried a lot, which is a common side-effect of the type of bends I had. But I didn’t ring my family until the treatment had finished. At first the hospital couldn’t tell me whether I’d be left with any permanent nervous system damage. I didn’t want to hear my mum’s voice until I knew the outcome. On the final day, I was told I would make a full recovery. The bubbles had gone – I was like flat champagne. I fell apart the minute I spoke to Mum. She was furious I hadn’t told her and immediately booked flights to see me. By the time she arrived, my despair at being so ill had been replaced by anger. If the dive company had reacted sooner, the effects would have been far less dramatic. I went to see a lawyer, but decided to take it no further. I wanted to go home. I never got so much as an apology.
The effect on me will never go. There are no lasting physical repercussions, but I won’t be able to dive again and I now have a fear of being in places where help might not immediately be at hand.
Article taken from guardian.co.uk