Good judgment comes from experience. Yet experience often arises as a result of bad judgment.
More than a decade ago, I earned a lot of experience when Paul Heinerth and I eagerly hiked into the Yucatan to explore the Pit, a cave system we had uncovered three years earlier. Armed with newly developed rebreathers and precious helium mixes, we would be diving nearly 400 feet deep.
Today, the Pit is easily accessible by jungle road, but in the earliest exploration of the Sistema Dos Ojos, getting gear to the site required exhausting hikes, makeshift donkey carts, robust Maya sherpas, and a lot of determination and sweat.
Paul and I had anticipated the help of a local support team, but on arrival, we discovered that they had been dispatched to assist the thriving recreational tourism business. I was a little perturbed but resolved that we could do it on our own. We had plenty of equipment, supplies and a trusty Comex In-Water Recompression Table.
Our logbooks were fat with many thousands of dives, and perhaps I was feeling a little invincible. Some combination of passion and spirit led me to dive to almost 400 feet two days in a row, something I had not done before and have not done since that punishing day.
Feeling marching ants crawling under the skin of my thighs at 60 feet during decompression, it was clear to me that I was bent. It came on slowly at first, but soon I had the urge to scratch through all the layers of trilaminate and undergarments that were keeping me warm and dry. I had never felt a sensation like that. A growing ache in my shoulder made my situation even harder to ignore.
I lengthened my decompression profile and gingerly climbed out of the water, but my profound exhaustion told me I still had a problem. Too tired to do anything other than breathe oxygen and drink water, I collapsed on my sleeping mat and hoped everything would go away. My resolve was eroded. I had lost the ability to help myself. I was scared.
Improvised in-water recompression at the dive site, an arduous hike out of the jungle, and three follow-up chamber runs resulted in a full but painful recovery. Looking back, I learned many things: The frequently reported symptom of “denial” extends far beyond embarrassment — I’m convinced that a bent, sick person knows they need help but simply can’t ask for it. (It makes sense that if your body chemistry is that screwed up, it might affect your ability to speak up.) It is critical that somebody else on the team takes charge and makes decisions for a DCS victim.
Second, oxygen is a powerful ally. Having plenty of rich gas on site saved me from grave injuries.
Last, the long-term psychological effects of a DCS incident should be more widely discussed. Our community has correctly discarded terminology that divides decompression illness into “deserved” and “undeserved” hits — DCS, like a football player’s concussion or a runner’s pulled hamstring, is a sports injury. When we share our experiences, all divers are better informed. And DAN insurance should be mandatory: I have watched DAN help countless colleagues through the incident and aftermath of diving injuries.
Am I ever going to get bent again? I can’t say, but I do everything I can to minimize the risk.