Important Enough

A nonmember discovers DAN can help all divers — even when injuries seem insignificant.

I fell in love with diving in 1988. I was house-sitting for a month in Aruba. It was my first trip to the Caribbean, and the clear, blue water was a revelation to someone who had known only Jones Beach off the coast of Long Island. A tour on a glass-bottomed boat introduced me to a world of impossibly colorful fish and an underwater landscape like nothing I'd ever imagined. Besides the beauty of it, I could hardly believe I was admiring a view 30 feet down. I wanted to get as close as possible to that extraordinary world.

I signed up for a resort class the next day and was introduced to the physiology of diving. There were four of us in the class, and the instructor taught us the basic concepts of pressure at depth. We were oriented to the gear and given the chance to try it out in the pool. That same afternoon we made a 30-foot dive on the wreck of the Antilla, and I was hooked. I went back every day that week. After my fourth dive, the instructor asked me if I would like to get certified. Having grown up on the films of Jacques Cousteau, I jumped at the chance. Over the next three weeks I dived every day, worked my way through the course materials and passed the written and practical tests. By the time I returned to New York, I was a certified open-water diver.

Opportunities to dive were few in the following years. I dived four times over the course of a short Caribbean vacation in 1992. They were all relatively shallow dives (45 feet or less). I buddied up with the divemaster on each of them, and I felt comfortable in the water after a few reminders. With nearly 10 dives since my certification I thought of myself as a diver. After all, I knew how to dive.

In 2001 I went back to Aruba on vacation and was again seduced by the waters in which I'd had my first taste of scuba. I took a 3-hour resort course to brush up on those long-unpracticed skills and jumped back in. Equalizing, mask clearing, neutral buoyancy — I remembered the concepts, and I felt confident it wouldn't take long before it was all second nature. It felt great to dive again, but it turned out I was rustier than I'd thought.

The last dive of the trip took me to 100 feet. The other two divers on the trip were much more experienced than me, and I didn't want to slow anyone down. Maybe I was overconfident or overeager to get to the site, but I wasn't as careful about equalizing as I should have been. The other divers descended rather quickly, and I found myself struggling to catch up. I remember feeling a bit of discomfort as I went deeper, but it passed. My ears felt a little "full" throughout the next day, but I had awakened with the sniffles and a bit of a sore throat so I thought I might simply be coming down with a cold. My flight late the next afternoon was more than 24 hours after my dive, and it was fine, or at least it was at first. When the plane arrived at the first stop, I noticed my ears felt more than a little full, and there was definitely some discomfort. When I arrived at my final destination, I knew something was wrong. There was a feeling of pressure in both ears, and my hearing was muffled; it was as though I had a couple of pillows over each ear. I got home, still hoping against hope that whatever it was would pass on its own. Two days later, I went online and found DAN's website.

I had never belonged to DAN® and didn't know much about the organization other than they were the people to call if you got "bent." When I'd first been certified in Aruba in 1988, my instructor mentioned DAN several times and encouraged us to consider membership and dive-accident insurance. Since that time, I had noticed the logo at dive shops and on dive boats but had never given it much thought. In fact, I assumed DAN was just for professionals or people who dived all the time. Even as I checked out the website, I wondered if my problem was important enough to get a response. Encouraged by the friendly presentation on the website, I emailed DAN and got a very prompt response from a medic who asked me to describe my symptoms and then asked further, more specific questions. She explained I probably had some bleeding on the insides of both eardrums and recommended I see a specialist. I had no idea where to begin. I had been living in Columbia, S.C., for just a year or two. I didn't have a regular doctor, and I had not made any effort to connect with the dive community there. I was really worried about what might be going on with my ears, and I didn't want just to pick a name out of the phone directory. The DAN medic reassured me she could help. An hour or so later, she emailed me the name and phone number of an otolaryngologist in town. She had spoken with him and learned he had experience treating divers (and that his brother was a commercial diver). She gave me his phone number and urged me to make an appointment as soon as possible, patiently explaining the likely treatment and calming my fear. When I called the office they knew about my situation, and I was able to get an appointment for the next day. I emailed my thanks to the DAN medic.

The doctor turned out to be kind and very patient. His diagnosis was the same as the DAN medic's assessment, and he proceeded to treat the problem in much the manner she had described. He had to puncture each ear drum to drain fluid from the middle ears, and he assured me my hearing would be fine, explaining he had done this procedure for his brother more than once. I was scared, but I had been prepared for it, and it was over quickly. I was so grateful. Imagine my surprise when later that day my phone rang and it was the medic from DAN. She was just calling to find out how things had gone — and I wasn't even a member.

Since then, I have become a DAN member and always look forward to reading the latest copy of Alert Diver. My passion for diving was renewed that summer of 2001, and my experience with DAN kept the ear injury from becoming a negative association with diving. On the contrary, I decided to get my advanced certification and several specialties. I renew my membership every year and never dive without DAN insurance. I'm a safer and more informed diver because of DAN. I'm also a cautious diver, and I have, over the years, contacted DAN whenever I've been concerned that some symptom might be related to a recent dive. It never has been, but it's been great to have somewhere to turn for answers. I'm glad I've never had to avail myself of DAN's emergency services, but I've heard stories from divemasters, and I'm glad to know DAN is there for divers. Diving every year in the Caribbean, I'm often on dive boats with folks who are newly certified or returning to diving after a long hiatus. I always recommend DAN membership and insurance to novice divers.
The Medic’s Perspective
It's not uncommon for divers to delay seeking care for postdive ear pain, thinking the problem isn't serious enough to warrant action. But the ears are valuable and important organs — taking the time to be evaluated is definitely worthwhile. DAN is here to answer any questions you or your treating physician may have.
— DAN medical information staff
© Alert Diver — Spring 2012