Better Safe Than Sorry

Sharon Gallmon fortunately decided not to ignore her symptoms and consequently avoided a potentially catastrophic outcome of a blocked carotid artery.

My adventure began while on vacation in St. Augustine, Florida, in October 2017 with my husband and one of our sons. Our youngest son had been taking diving lessons and wanted to get some practice time, so he signed up for a Discover Scuba class at one of the natural springs near Gainesville, Florida.

I am 57 years old and maintain excellent health by eating well, exercising regularly and never smoking or drinking alcohol. I have always wanted to scuba dive, so with little persuasion I signed up for the class.

Our day started early. Our instructor, who appeared to be very experienced, taught in the classroom for about an hour, and then we donned our equipment and entered the water. At first I was very nervous and found it difficult to equalize; after I learned to trust my equipment, I got caught up in the beauty of the clear springs and immersed myself in the dive. We surfaced after approximately an hour at about 25 feet deep. My son and I had a wonderful day and headed back to St. Augustine late that afternoon.

The next morning I noticed an apparent lag between when I spoke and when I heard myself speaking. I had some difficulty talking and felt strange for a few moments. My blood pressure was slightly elevated, but I soon felt fine and fell asleep on the balcony. A couple of hours later I felt like nothing had happened, so my husband and I decided to go to the beach. While I was walking I experienced the same lag time in my speech and hearing as I had a few hours before, but once again I was fine within seconds.

I told my son that the incident had happened again, so he texted me the phone number for the DAN® 24-hour emergency hotline. I called DAN and explained my symptoms to Travis Ward. He said that divers can have problems with their ears after a dive, but he was not aware of anyone having issues with their speech. He suggested that we go to the emergency room as soon as possible, but I first called a nearby Mayo Clinic. When I told the receptionist there about my symptoms, she also said that I needed to get to the emergency room as soon as possible.

Our son was waiting for us when my husband and I arrived at Flagler Hospital. I was embarrassed as I entered the emergency room because I felt fine; we all expected to be back at the beach within an hour. After I explained my symptoms at the front desk, I was immediately taken to one of the rooms. Before I knew what was happening, they hooked me up to several machines, started a heparin drip in my right arm, put a port in my left arm, placed a nitroglycerin patch on my chest and gave me aspirin. Within minutes I had a brain scan, electrocardiogram (EKG) and blood work. I was starting to become upset, and my blood pressure skyrocketed in a matter of minutes.

Medical personnel confirmed that I was not hemorrhaging in the brain. My blood pressure returned to normal, and I was admitted to a room in the intensive care unit. A heart test indicated that I was not bleeding internally and did not need emergency surgery. After several ultrasounds, both a neurologist and a cardiologist examined the results and found a problem in my carotid artery. Another ultrasound confirmed a 70 percent blockage in my left carotid, but the doctors were confused because there was no buildup anywhere else; they theorized that there could be a problem in my heart or lungs. I joined the cardiac catheterization club and had a variety of lung tests. My heart and lungs were in excellent condition, as I expected, so I could have surgery on the blockage.

After a long weekend in intensive care, the blockage had advanced to 90 percent. My surgery was successful, and the surgeon explained that the inner wall of the artery had collapsed and caused the blockage. The neurologist and cardiologist were unsure if there was an association with my dive since it was uneventful, my health was otherwise excellent and it appeared to be a freak accident. Nonetheless, they recommended that I give up diving.

Our weeklong vacation stretched to two weeks, with most of it spent with me in the hospital, but I truly am blessed that God had surrounded me and protected me from paralysis or death. Travis at DAN was very knowledgeable and gave me the correct advice to go to the emergency room. That day on the beach was a wonderful sunny day, and I had planned an eight-mile bike ride. Looking back, it is scary to think how close I came to ignoring the two episodes since my symptoms appeared insignificant. That inaction could have cost me my life.

I am thankful for how it all worked out, and my advice is to not take a chance with your life. Even though you may sometimes make some unnecessary trips to the emergency room or a clinic, it is better to be safe than sorry.
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© Alert Diver — Q2 Spring 2018