Blue Lagoon Rescue

I began diving in 1975, became an instructor in 2000 and became a DAN instructor in 2002. As an independent instructor for more than a decade, I thought I had experienced almost everything that could happen in or near the water. How wrong I was.

The Blue Lagoon in Huntsville, Texas, is a dive-training mecca 70 miles north of Houston. It is an old alkali quarry, so it does not support life, but it has great visibility for a Texas mud hole. Because the quarry has platforms and a few other structures in it, it is perfect for training open-water (OW) divers. The maximum depth at the quarry is 25 feet. There is a full-service dive shop, cabins, shelters and air available for divers; this is in the middle of the East Texas Piney Woods, so there isn't much else for miles around.

On one beautiful day, with sunshine and half a breeze, I had four students in the water completing an OW training course. Two other students were on the shore waiting to do their advanced open-water (AOW) navigation run along with my son Bradley, who was a rescue-diver candidate. The final OW student had just reached the surface after completing his controlled emergency swimming ascent when I suddenly became short of breath. Thinking quickly, I called for Bradley to come help me. Believing that I was either simply drilling him or just feeling lazy, he leisurely swam out to tow the "tired diver" to the shore that was at least 100 yards away. When he arrived on scene and performed his assessment, however, he realized that this was no drill.

I was worried that I had a collapsed lung, but I was still coherent and able to speak. I yelled for my other son, Christopher, to get the oxygen out of the vehicle. "How appropriate," I thought to myself, "to finally meet my end while teaching a class in 25 feet of water."

Bradley towed me to shore and made an egress. Even though he had watched me teach the DAN Emergency Oxygen course several times before, he hadn't yet completed it himself, so he had to use his memory to figure out how to put together the equipment on his own. Luckily, he must have been paying attention. Bradley and Christopher soon administered oxygen per the briefing plan.

After 15 minutes of trying to catch my breath without success, emergency medical services (EMS) were finally called. Upon arrival, they ruled out the collapsed-lung theory and discovered that I was in atrial fibrillation of an unknown cause. I was immediately transported and hospitalized overnight and have since made a full recovery and have been cleared to dive. I never lost consciousness or awareness of what was happening.

All four of my OW students are now certified, and the two AOW students have completed their certification and have started rescue-diver training. Bradley, nearing the completion of his rescue-diver training, thinks he should get a free pass for saving my life, but that's not going to happen.

This incident occurred in 2012, so the ages and certifications have changed since then. Bradley is now 17, a college-bound student and rescue-diver candidate. Christopher, 13, is a high-school student and an AOW candidate. I couldn't be prouder of them.

I later asked Bradley and Christopher what they were thinking during the event. Bradley said he went on "automatic." He did everything I had taught him and more. See, sometimes they do pay attention. Christopher said he just followed Bradley's orders and tried to remember what he'd learned from watching some of the classes I had taught. For my part, I think I'll keep them around — rent-free.
The Medic’s Perspective
It is always a pleasure to hear when medical emergencies result in a positive outcome. The response from the diver's sons speaks volumes to the importance of early and continuing education in dive safety and emergency preparedness. The incident also reminds us that there can be and are instances when dive leaders experience problems and require assistance. Dive professionals are not immune to circumstance or error, and being trained and confident enough to provide aid when necessary should be part of every diver's aspirations.

In many ways this diver was lucky. First, he had a team of responsive and organized student divers around him — a testament both to his skill as an instructor and to his sons' attentiveness and confidence. He was also lucky that he did not have a collapsed lung. It is not uncommon for some heart problems such as atrial fibrillation to manifest as shortness of breath, and the fact that Bradley was able to yell for his son is inconsistent with a collapsed lung. Providing surface oxygen was absolutely appropriate in this case as it is in most first-aid situations associated with diving.

As this account illustrates, very different issues can present in similar manners, and it is a very human trait to self-diagnose when we experience a sudden health condition. When in distress, it is fully understandable that we want to determine the problem and immediately try to make it better, but it is far too easy to make the wrong diagnosis. This is why prompt evaluation by medical professionals is imperative. Once EMS arrived, they very quickly identified the health issue and were able to treat him appropriately.

There is still no substitute for proper training, practice and having the confidence to implement care when needed. The diver and his sons are to be commended for their response to a frightening and serious situation.

Having an episode of atrial fibrillation should keep the diver on alert. Atrial fibrillation is often recurrent and becomes more frequent with aging. Fitness to dive is evaluated on an individual basis and should be reconsidered regularly.

© Alert Diver — Fall 2014