No place on Kaua’i for divers with the bends

LIHU’E – Divers on Kaua’i don’t have a hyperbaric chamber to help them survive the bends.

The chambers are used to rectify the dangerous results of decompression sickness – the bends – which include muscular aches and pains, numbness and the possible development of an embolism in the lungs, spine or brain.

The condition also often leads to paralysis, according to experts.

Divers who come up too quickly from the watery depths are most at risk.

The problems relating to the lack of an on-island hyperbaric chamber can be attested to by Tara Leota, an experienced Kaua’i scuba diver and boat captain.

Leota, a dive master for Bubbles Below, was rushed to an O’ahu hyperbaric chamber by helicopter Aug. 10 after she was stricken by the bends.

Leota was transported by a Pacific Missile Range Facility Navy helicopter from Barking Sands because a Hawai’i Air Ambulance aircraft was unavailable, according to range officials.

“Following intense coordination” between the missile range, Kaua’i Veterans Memorial Hospital emergency physician Dr. Wayne Fukino and Dr. Robert Overlock at Kuakini Hospital on O’ahu, “it was determined the patient needed the chamber as soon as possible,” said range/ITT Industries fire chief Robert Westerman.

Kuakini Hospital is the site of the nearest hyperbaric chamber. Overlock supervised the chamber formerly located at Kaua’i Veterans Memorial until that chamber was closed in the mid-1990’s.

Frank Farm, Kuakini hyperbaric chamber director, said the major problem with keeping chambers on smaller islands is cost-effectiveness.

“We don’t like to talk about costs because you can’t put a price on life. But although we had one for a while on Kaua’i and one for less than a year on the Big Island, we’ve closed them,” Farm said.

Overlock “did a great job” on Kaua’i “keeping peoples’ interest up, using volunteers,” but there weren’t that many patients, Farm said.

“Kaua’i has maybe one or two (hyperbaric chamber emergencies) a year,” he speculated.

Farm said Kuakini serves between 50 and 75 patients per year. Many of the cases come from divers rushing to the surface.

“They run out of air, or they are scared by a shark,” he said.

In his nearly 20 years of working with divers suffering from decompression sickness, Farm said he has witnessed few deaths.

“The more significant problems” are divers suffering paralysis and becoming paraplegics and quadriplegics, Farm said.

The prognosis is not always grim, though.

“People that have pain, if we get them soon enough, end up with “minor weakness in their limbs. Some get near-complete recovery,” Farm said.

“It’s not a pure science,” he continued. “The quicker (a diver is treated), the better. If there was a chamber right on board when the diver comes up, chances for full recovery are 90-something percent. The longer you wait, the less” the chance.

According to Farm, the hyperbaric chamber recreates the diver’s experience under water.

“Essentially, we recompress them. We put a person in the chamber, take them to an equivalent ocean depth, and that pressure squeezes the bubbles in (the diver’s) system and recompresses them. The bubbles get tiny, tiny, tiny, and we bring them (patients) out slowly,” he explained.

Kuakini, the only civilian hyperbaric chamber in Hawai`i, according to Farm, has been in operation since 1983.

Staff writer Dennis Wilken can be reached at 245-3618 (ext. 252) and dwilken@pulitzer.net

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