Deep Survival: One Deep Wreck Diver’s Story of Death and Survival – Part II
“A dive is an exercise in task management…nearly all of them appear to be simple, but even the simplest tasks…can have catastrophic consequences” – Phillip Finch, Diving Into Darkness
This is an incredible diving survival story. Decompression Illness, or “the Bends”, is a real and present danger for technical and recreational divers. What you are about to read is a three part series on one wreck diver’s experience with death, getting bent, barely surviving and coming back to tell the tale. This is Part II of three parts (Part I is here – you should read it first). If the entire story doesn’t give you chills, then you might need to check your pulse. – Editor-in-Chief, Brian J.
Rescue #3: 2004 – Eastern Basin Lake Erie – wreck of the John J. Boland Jr – Depth 140 ffw
I broke the surface and was on my back. Those on board who were watching my bubbles from the depths below saw my face – it was blue. I had been submerged in 34 degree water (1.11 degrees Celsius) for almost an hour. My body turned over and my face was once again in the water.
They didn’t know whether I was dead or alive.
I was later told they were worried my regulator would fall out of my mouth when I turned over face first in the water. I was bloated and blue. They all thought I was dead. A couple of divers jumped overboard and hauled my lifeless body onto the boat.
Needless to say, I don’t remember anything that happened once I broke the surface. The only thing I vividly recall, as if it happened a moment ago, was after I broke the surface I remember seeing a white light. The light was bright and warm. I remember everything fading to black with the exception of this bright white light in a tunnel. At the end of the tunnel there was a blurry figure. I remember the figure getting closer, but I couldn’t make out who it was.
I’m not sure how long I was in this tunnel but the next thing I remember I woke up with blood on my face.
I could barely see because the blood that splattered all over my mask had dried in my eyes. I couldn’t hear very well either. My eardrums had exploded and were oozing puss and blood. I knew people were talking because I could see their lips moving but I had no idea what anyone was saying.
I tried moving but it proved too difficult. I couldn’t move my legs. In fact, I couldn’t move anything below my waist. Just because I couldn’t move didn’t mean I couldn’t feel. The pain was intense. The dreaded “bends” had just taken over my body. I was laying on the boat waiting to die, again.
Someone had put an oxygen mask on my face when I was unconscious. I tried removing the mask for whatever reason but couldn’t grip anything. My hands and fingers became too painful to move. I had an extreme case of muscle tetany (involuntary contraction of muscles). My fingers and hands became torqued. The pain was excruciating. My elbows were on fire and felt like they were going to burst.
Decompression sickness (DCS) is one component of Decompression Illness (DCI), the other being Arterial Gas Embolism (AGE). Unfortunately, I had both. There is a reason why people often refer to DCS as the “bends”. As I described what happened to me above, one who suffers a DCS “hit” will usually get pain and discomfort in joints. The “bends” is the result of a bunch of nitrogen built up in one’s tissues that comes out of solution during a rapid decompression and results in bubbles. These nitrogen bubbles form in the bloodstream and form around joints. What happens to your bloodstream as a result of the “bends” is the equivalent of shaking a bottle of Coke and opening the top. The violent reaction of bubbles forming is what happens to a diver’s bloodstream with nitrogen bubbles. It is extremely painful.
At this point I asked the captain for a gun so he could shoot me.
Not because I wanted to die and not because I was giving up. It was quite the contrary. I just needed a relief from the pain so I could think clearly. I obviously couldn’t concentrate with everything happening to me: extremely hypothermic, blood everywhere, perforated eardrums, and a DCS hit.
I was in and out of consciousness. I remember being very cold and then suddenly warm. I could barely move my hands. I could hardly move my arms. I couldn’t move my legs.
I woke up once and saw everyone staring at me. Everyone looked scared. They were saying something about whether or not they should cut my drysuit. In my head I was thinking if I ever made it to shore, or to definitive care, it was coming off anyway.
I woke up with my drysuit filleted like a fish. (As a side note, I do appreciate them pausing to consider whether or not to cut my $3,000 suit. They did the right thing).
I concentrated on breathing the 100% oxygen. I knew from my studies and experience the best treatment for DCS was pure oxygen. I knew the oxygen would counteract the nitrogen bubbles. I also knew that if I didn’t get to a hyperbaric chamber soon, I would most likely die or, at best, remain paralyzed from the waist down. I knew as long as I was breathing any oxygen concentration higher than that of air, I had at least some chance of living.
I was told the captain was racing to shore and that an ambulance had been called. We were too far away from the closest chamber to be transported by ambulance. I was told a helicopter was called and that I would be transported via air to the hospital.
Shit, I thought. I knew things were bad, but it always seems to really sink in when you hear how bad things are from someone else.
For whatever reason I kept thinking, Please let it be the Coast Guard. I hope it’s the Coasties. I love those guys. I always wanted to fly in a Dolphin helicopter. Dark humor.
The next thing I remember was the boat slowing. The captain had the engine at full throttle from the wreck site all the way to shore. Everyone on board was preparing me for transfer to the awaiting ambulance. I still couldn’t hear very well, but I remember lots of people making noise and talking loud. I could sense the tension in the air. I was in immense pain. All of the sudden I felt a rush of warmth through my body. I passed out again.
I awoke after I had been transferred to the ambulance.
The medics were piling on blankets. My eyes hadn’t been cleaned yet, but I could see the medics trying to start IVs. I was watching them repeatedly poking me trying to get a vein. The problem was that I was so hypothermic all the blood had rushed to my vital organs from my extremities to keep me alive.
The medics kept telling me the helicopter was on its way and would be here shortly. At this point I knew I was in trouble. I knew from my symptoms and from the medics talking on the radio I was in a desperate fight for my life.
In a way to try to convince myself that things were not that bad, I told the medic that my hearing was improving. He smiled. He knew I was just trying to stay head strong. He asked me how my hearing was improving especially with all the dried blood and puss in my ears. I told him I could barely hear the helicopter coming from the distance. I told him if I could hear the helicopter that far away, I must be getting better. He laughed and told me if I could barely hear the helicopter my hearing was terrible because the helicopter had already landed right next to the ambulance! Fuck, I’m in deep shit, I thought. How could I not hear a helicopter land 100 feet away? I could feel the life drain from me.
I don’t remember much, if anything, from the helicopter flight. The one thing I do recall was the flight medic telling the pilot he didn’t think I would survive the flight to the hospital. I became incensed with this comment. I just waited to feel what it was like to die again.
The next thing I remember feeling was an extreme cold.
We were on the pad and I was being transferred from the helicopter to the emergency department. I saw what must have been a dozen faces around my stretcher. They were running me down the hallway. I remember seeing white everywhere.
Once we stopped moving I knew we were in the trauma room. The rest of my clothes, including my drysuit insulation, were cut off (there went another $500). I was being examined and poked and prodded everywhere. There was a lot of noise in the room. IVs were being started, warming blankets were piled on, hypothermia protocols were being initiated, oxygen therapy continued.
I was fading in and out. I could feel pain. I still couldn’t move my legs. I was tired.
Suddenly, I was left alone in the room. I looked to the right. The white privacy curtain was moving. I saw a distant cousin standing there who I hadn’t seen in years. I looked at him in confusion and said “Am I dead?” He smiled and said I was not dead. I asked him if he was certain I was alive. With a smile he assured me I was alive.
The doctors had been consulting with various dive medicine and hyperbaric experts in the United States and in Canada. While they were sharing information I needed to be “prepped” for the chamber. This short woman doctor with an Eastern European accent walked in the room. She was very motherly, but all business. Behind her was a burly orderly. He was big. I never knew his name, but he was a large man.
It was explained to me that in order for me to enter the dive chamber and complete the recompression therapy, I needed to have the pressure relieved from my eardrums. I told her that my eardrums had exploded on the way up to the surface and that there was no need to do anything to my ears. She pulled out a stainless steel lancet. I shook my head and told her there was no way anyone was putting that in my ear to pop my eardrums again. Just then the orderly came over and held my head down and to the left exposing my right ear. The doctor took the lancet and popped my eardrum.
The blood and puss poured out and rolled into my mouth. The taste was horrendous.
That was only the first eardrum. I tried to no avail to hold the left side of my head to the pillow so they could never get the lancet in that ear. The orderly simply turned my head and pressed down so I wouldn’t move. I didn’t have a chance. The doctor pierced my left eardrum. The second one hurt more than the first. As kindly as possible, she said “That wasn’t that bad, was it?” I yelled at her as loud as I could. I later apologized.
Once the doctors had finished consulting with the hyperbaric experts, I was given the option to either enter the chamber or not. The choice may seem like an easy one. All the textbooks and courses teach the fact that if you have the bends, you go in the chamber, period. However, my case was complicated by the fact that I had completed six months of cancer treatment, which included both chemotherapy and radiation therapy, four months prior. The choice wasn’t that easy.
The best treatment for any DCS hit is pure oxygen, or if not available, the highest concentration of oxygen available. As an example, in the absence of 100% oxygen, a Nitrox blend of 36% or 40% will work better than ambient air containing 21% oxygen. The point is to get as much oxygen as possible. However, it was explained to me that there was a significant chance of adversely affecting my lungs with prolonged oxygen therapy in high concentrations due to a combination of the chemotherapy drugs and backscatter radiation to my lungs. In this lies the quandary. So it really isn’t that easy of a decision after all. In the end I had only two options:
Enter the hyperbaric chamber and attempt recompression therapy. I was told I had less than a 40% chance of surviving given the complications recompression therapy posed to my body because of the effects of fighting the cancer.
- (1) There would be a recompression specialist inside the chamber with me helping me along the way and would be able to intervene should something go wrong.
- (2) Being the ever optimist, I had a 40% chance of survival.
- (1) 60% chance of not surviving.
- (2) Should anything serious happen in which intervention was needed (CPR, AED, etc.) I may need to be removed from the chamber in order to complete the necessary life saving intervention, which may cause more of an issue because I would have missed and or interfered with the recompression therapy.
- (3) Prolonged length of time to high concentration of oxygen.
- (4) My family asked me not to.
Refrain from entering the recompression chamber and take my chances with fate.
Pros: (Intentionally blank)
- (1) There were no Pros.
- (2) Even if I survived, no one could guarantee I would regain any mobility or function of my legs as I was still paralyzed from the waist down.
I initially decided to enter the chamber. Why? Because that’s all I was ever taught – if you get bent, get to a chamber. I would have rather played the odds with the less than 40% chance of survival than wait to see if my temporary paralysis improved.
Just as the best laid military plan works until the first shot is fired and then it all changes, nothing is textbook. After much pleading from my family, I decided the best option was to not enter the chamber. Why? Because there were less cons than the other option. Period. This wasn’t an easy choice, but at the end of the day it was all academic – a basic, elementary school pro-and-con chart to determine my future.
We are running this story in three parts. Part I is here and Part III will be published shortly. The story will conclude with Part III. In Part I, Erik sets the tone with two underwater rescues he experienced. You won’t want to miss it. You can subscribe to the email list or follow us on Facebook to be notified when they are published. – Brian J.
Erik Petkovic began his diving career in 1997 and has logged hundreds of dives along the East Coast and the Great Lakes region of the U.S. An avid shipwreck researcher, he has been published in multiple international dive magazines. He is currently authoring two forthcoming books Shipwrecks of Lake Erie and a yet to be titled photographic companion book. Erik is available for seminars and speaking engagements. He currently resides in Southern Maryland with his wife and two sons. Visit ShipWrecksofLakeErie.com for more information or to buy Erik’s books.