The start of my backpacking nightmare begun below the sea. Underwater, the world is a different place. I always compare my experience diving underwater with what it would be like on another planet. You see organisms that look more like aliens than anything from our planet, and the feeling when you’re below is a feeling of detachment from the everyday.
I had no intentions of learning to dive before my travel begun and it was a spontaneous trip to Mabul Island in Borneo, where I got my Open Water Dive Certificate. I planned this trip a day and a half before, whilst chatting to a friend in Kota Kinabalu. After experiencing scuba diving in such an amazing destination, and at such a low price, I needed to keep going.
I want to write about this topic, so divers or travellers thinking of diving can learn from my mistakes and experiences.
Backpacking Nightmare – Decompression Sickness
We all get sick at some point during our trip, and it can be a backpacking nightmare. But usually it’s just a common cold, exhaustion or a bad case of food poisoning. A few nights in bed, multiple visits to the toilet later and you’d be bright eyed again, ready to go on. Therefore, when I got decompression sickness, it completely threw me.
Decompression Sickness (DCS), also known as the Divers Disease or The Bends is when the body fails to decompress following a reduction in ambient pressure surrounding the body.
When you dive, the body absorbs nitrogen and when you surface too quickly, bubbles can form in your tissue and blood stream, causing damage to your body. However, this can happen even if you stick to all the diving limits and guidelines.
Denial and Realisation
I experienced a beautiful shipwreck dive in Amed, Indonesia. Amed is a quiet, small fishing village in East Bali. I came alone and was enjoying the seclusion away from the hustle and bustle the rest of Bali offers.
The dive was just the Dive Master and I. Everything went smooth in our eyes and we followed the diving guidelines as you should. The dive was breath-taking, where we surveyed the outer parts of the wreck before going on a second dive to enter the wreck.
The following morning, I felt slightly fatigued, but I thought nothing of it, as I regularly get bouts of tiredness which usually passes. This is especially the case when travelling for long periods of time, always on the move.
In hindsight, this was the moment where I should have returned to the Dive School and informed them of my condition. However, it’s extremely common for people to deny symptoms of decompression sickness. So much so that diver denial has now been presented as the first symptom of decompression sickness. Denial tries to suppress a problem, which is just too uncomfortable to accept. I think deep down somewhere inside me, I had a feeling what it was.
Instead I carried on with my travel as normal, catching the fast boat over to Gili T, to enjoy some blue beaches and partying. My fatigue came and went whilst my mind played tricks on my body. A day or two passed and I headed to the clinic to seek medical advice. They offered little help and told me to monitor the situation. By this point, I wished that I never learnt to dive and kept my travels over land rather than under the sea! It was beginning to be a backpacking nightmare. I questioned whether I would need to end my travels, would the condition become more serious?!
Symptoms of Decompression Sickness
At this stage, I wasn’t feeling too great. I was fatigued, my joints/muscles were beginning to ache and my body was experiencing numbness. I could also swear that the look of my veins were almost black and more prominent when I woke up.
I wanted to go to a larger city in order to seek further medical assistance. I flew to Surabaya. In hindsight again, this was probably a bad idea, as flying causes a change in pressure and I am still unsure how this affected the condition. Whether it exacerbated it further?
I checked into a hotel, Surabaya being a business city, they were reasonably priced and I needed my own space to clear my head. I went to a recommended hospital and registered myself as a patient speaking to a doctor with limited English. My symptoms of decompression sickness were largely dismissed by him, but I persisted that something wasn’t quite right. Subsequently, he phoned another doctor at a naval hospital and referred me there.
What’s Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy
On arrival, this wasn’t a hospital but more resembled a semi military base. It was called the RSAL and specialised in Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy. I followed the specific directions and entered a building that looked like a really old museum, with 2 huge antique looking tin cans presented in the centre of the room. The room reminded me of those super boring museums you’d go to with school as a kid. Later, I would discover this was the actual room where the treatment occurs.
I was introduced to the doctor in charge, a very young man, he must have been below 25 years old. He recommended 5 or 6 treatments. But that also that the centre would be shutting in 3 days for Eid.
I was clueless, concerned and confused to what my options were. Would I have to stay here for a couple of weeks? How much would this cost me? The language barrier obviously posed a problem too. Afterwards, he brought a naval officer in, who recommended Table 6. “What the hell is table 6?!” is what I was thinking. I now know this is the standard initial treatment for decompression sickness.
It comprises of around 5 hours in the chamber, where you breathe pure 100% oxygen, with timed intervals for minute breaks. Inside the chamber, it was small, dark and claustrophobic and the male nurse spoke no English, which added to my backpacking nightmare. The metal box had a tiny scratched up window, which shed some light in. This didn’t help calm my nerves, as I didn’t know exactly what was going on. Before entering the chamber, I didn’t receive any information on what would take place.
Over 5 hours in a tin can
The treatment began, I could hear the pressure changing inside. The noise was extremely loud and I could feel it in my ears. Similar to the sensation when you take a flight but much more rapid and intense. I needed to equalize my cavities every few seconds, which essentially means popping my ears. Would it be like this for the full 5 hours?
Thankfully it stopped, and I guessed pressure must have been reached. I strapped on my fighter plane style oxygen masked and breathed in the good stuff. In the chamber, there is nothing to do apart from think. No phones or books were permitted. When I was permitted to remove the mask during the interval breaks, I tried to communicate in any way I could with my only companion. As a result of his lack of English skills, it was difficult but through basic yes and no, and a variety of hand gestures, we managed to share with each other things about our own lives.
I became increasingly patient and then thought about an article I read about a fire in the chamber. With 100% oxygen, we would have our faces burned off! After 5 hours, the ordeal was over and I hoped it would put an end to my backpacking nightmare. At this point it had reached evening, I stepped out, paid for the treatment and was on my way. No debrief required in Asia after treatment.
Back home after 3 months on the road
The next morning, I woke up hoping some of the symptoms of decompression sickness would have faded but instead had lost my sense of hearing. This literally scared the crap out of me. I could hear very slight muffle noises but nothing else. At this point I booked a flight home and rung the local diving chamber at home, to see what their guidance would be. They told me to check-in whenever I was back and that the treatment I had had sounded correct. This was re-assuring and by the next day I was on the plane back to London. After exactly 3 months on the road, I was on my way back home.
After several more sessions back home, the doctor said that there was no point continuing with more. Time would tell if there would be a full recovery. I suffered some nerve damage and my feet/legs ache during future flights. Shortly after the treatments, my legs would ache for a few days after a flight. It’s been a year on now and I no longer suffer any noticeable effects in my everyday life.
In my opinion, it is only when you’ve been somewhere where things don’t quite operate as efficiently or as easily, that you truly appreciate your home country. On getting back to London, I truly felt like I was home and happy that everything works just the way it should.
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