Call 911!

It was a warm summer day on California's Catalina Island and the first day of diving for my class of open-water students. The day started out the same way it had a hundred times before, but this ordinary day was about to change.

As an emergency medical technician (EMT) in Southern California, I am constantly faced with rapidly changing situations that are a part of caring for the sick and injured. Before becoming an EMT, I was a DAN® Instructor, and it was my DAN training that sunny day that propelled me into my career in emergency medical services.

My assistant and I had just finished getting our eight students geared up and ready to dive. As we approached the entry point, we joked about how our drysuits were becoming wetsuits thanks to our profuse sweating under the hot California sun. The staircase leading into the water was completely packed as we took our place in the queue; there must have been close to 100 divers on the scene, and it wasn't even 9 a.m. yet.

Suddenly a frantic voice yelled out, "Call 911! Call 911!" My initial thought was that it was a routine rescue-class scenario, and a student had gotten a little carried away. The same piercing voice continued, "Call 911!" I began to get the feeling something wasn't right. No one on the staircase moved; everyone just stared down toward the water. I walked over to the exit side of the stairs to see what was going on, and time stopped. A man standing at the base of the stairs was calling for help while trying to support a completely unconscious diver in the shallow water. The seriousness of the situation hit me immediately, and my DAN training kicked into high gear.

I sent my class back to our staging area, removed my gear and proceeded down the stairs. Upon reaching the diver, I noticed two things right away: he was cyanotic (blue) and still wearing his weight belt. I quickly ditched his weights into the water and unsuccessfully attempted to lift him out. The diver was a big guy, taller than me and considerably heavier. Two more people soon came to help. It took four people — one on each leg and arm — to carry him up the stairs. Once we made it to the top, my mind went totally blank. It seemed like several minutes, but it was actually only seconds until my training took over. I called out for a pocket mask and began to assist another diver in removing the diver's wetsuit. Once his suit and hood were off, we checked and confirmed that he was not breathing and did not have a pulse. We began two-person CPR immediately, and I quickly realized the truth in what I have taught my students about CPR for years: You actually can cause trauma. This was a frightening sensation, as was feeling the crepitus (crunching and grinding) with every compression.

We worked on the unresponsive diver for what felt like an eternity, but only three to five minutes had actually passed. A member of the Harbor Patrol relieved me as paramedics arrived on the scene. When I backed away to allow room for the medics to work, the gravity of the situation began to set in. Up to that point I had been so focused on providing care that I had not even registered what was going on around me. My breathing was fast and deep, my hands were shaking, and all I could hear was the dialogue between the paramedics. I sat on the wall in a daze, staring at the medics as they worked. I eventually got to my feet, grabbed my gear and walked over to my waiting class, who had no idea any of this had happened; my assistant had kept them away from the scene.

I put down my gear and noticed the medics were loading the diver into the ambulance, so I walked over and asked for a status update. I was told he had regained a pulse and was breathing. At that moment I started to relive the entire event, from start to finish, in hyper speed. Every detail, every chest compression and the man's lifeless expression all raced through my head. For some unknown reason, tears began to stream down my face. Perhaps it was a release of energy or a combination of adrenaline with the knowledge that he now had a chance of survival.

I didn't see the diver again, but the following day a sheriff's deputy told me, "The man left here talking and laughing." This was great news, of course, and something I now recognize as rare. It is my belief this man survived because of the quick thinking of well-trained bystanders who put their training into action, the excellent skills of the Los Angeles County Fire Department and, of course, the man's will to live.

Since my very first DAN training course, I have felt confidence in the skills I acquired. As I have continued to add certifications to my repertoire, the more empowered and prepared I have felt for events such as this one. As a DAN Instructor, I enjoy educating others and passing on the life-saving skills I've learned. I often find myself using this incident to illustrate the importance of good basic-life-support and first-aid training to students as well as friends and family members. It happened on the water that day at Catalina, but it could very well happen in aisle five at the grocery store tomorrow.
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© Alert Diver — Fall 2012