That Time I Got ‘The Bends’ the Day Before the Pandemic Announcement
March 11th. That date is seared into my memory because I woke up feeling glad that I was still alive. Later that same day we all found out that the coronavirus was officially a pandemic. This is my story of that tumultuous week, which started when I made the decision to go scuba diving in the Philippines…
Whilst the world was still up in arms about the seriousness of coronavirus, I was on a little island in the Philippines, called Malapascua. It’s a beautiful place with white sand beaches, turquoise-blue waters and welcoming Filipino musicians who love to give out hugs — a world away from the madness and sterility of the growing covid panic.
Malapascua became a hotspot on the travellers’ map because it’s the only place in the world where you can dive with Thresher Sharks. Unlike Hammerheads and Whale Sharks, Thresher Sharks are little known but no less cool — their unique characteristic is a long tail that is almost the same length as their body. Many dive shops have popped up on the East side of the island to take tourists out on an early morning dive where you’re pretty likely to catch a glimpse of these beautiful creatures.
I visited Malapascua as ‘fill-in time’ whilst I waited for a friend who I’d planned to travel with around the Philippines for a month. For this reason, I was umm-ing and ahh-ing about whether to do the Thresher Shark dive; it meant that I was starting the ‘fun’ without my friend (but she didn’t dive anyway) and it would start eating into my Philippines budget. After chatting to some new friends in our ‘cat-nap’ spot, I decided to take the plunge and go on this once-in-a-lifetime dive. YOLO, right?
10/3/20 — the day of the dive
The next day my alarm chimed around 4:10am. I was prepared; I brushed my teeth, grabbed my bag and left. It was still dark, besides a bright (almost full) moon, when I left so I traipsed the dark streets of the island accompanied by a cacophony of crowing roosters. It was pretty eerie and I clutched onto my phone for fear of being jumped. Luckily it was only a 15-minute walk to the dive shop; through some back alleys and then along the beachfront.
By 6 am we jumped into the water and entered the territory of the Thresher Sharks. Honestly, it was amazing. I’ve never seen so many sharks in one dive. My Divemaster was great too and he took my GoPro to get closer shots of the incredible creatures. The dive had a perfectly normal profile, we ascended slowly (my dive watch never beeped) and we completed the 3-minute safety stop at 5m. I felt amazing after the dive and I enjoyed the beautiful boat ride back to shore with a hot coffee — my idea of a dream!
An hour after returning to shore I was back in my hostel and I decided to order breakfast. By this point, I had started feeling a bit weird: I felt a bit sick but I assumed it was just pangs of hunger and tiredness.
When my mango pancake arrived, I had to lift my head off the table and try to force down the food — I seriously wasn’t keen to eat.
As I ate I started to notice tingling sensations in my left arm. I was a little worried but I hoped that a nap would make me feel better.
During my napping attempt (where I was tossing and turning) I realised that I could no longer feel my left forearm — it had gone numb. It was in that moment that my worst fears about scuba diving were potentially realised; for those not in the know, numbness in a limb after a dive is a key symptom of decompression sickness. All those hours of PADI videos taught me a lot, including the dangers of diving.
What is Decompression Sickness?
I thought I’d take a quick intermission in this story to explain what decompression sickness (DCS) is for those non-divers amongst you.
DCS (commonly known as ‘the bends’) : is the result of inadequate decompression following exposure to increased pressure (defined by DAN)
When you go scuba diving, your body absorbs nitrogen as you descend, which is perfectly fine when you’re under pressure (underwater). Problems arise if the pressure is released too quickly when you ascend, causing the nitrogen to come out of solution and form bubbles in your tissues and/or your blood. This usually happens if you ascend at a rapid rate or if you fail to safety stop. However, there are also many other factors that can predispose you to getting DCS on a dive where all precautions are followed…
After my onset of symptoms, I first tried to get advice from the dive shop at my hostel but they didn’t seem to care so then I went straight to the dive shop whom I dived with. I spoke to the manager who re-assured me that I probably had some nitrogen trapped in my arm from the dive and it would go away on its own. She suggested that I took it easy for the rest of the day. Her advice calmed me down and I decided that my original plan to head back to Cebu City (a 5–6 hour trip by boat and bus) would be better delayed to the next day. Instead, I went to the ‘cat-nap’ spot (where life had been worry-free just 24 hours before) and tried to chill out.
A few hours later, I went back to the dive shop because my concerns were growing: I couldn’t help but feel incredibly restless and tired and weak. Earlier, when I was re-assuring my hostel friends that “I should be fine” (before they left for an overnight island trip), I had noticed that I’d been unable to fully concentrate and follow the conversation. I wasn’t myself at all.
The manager explained that there can be individual cases of DCS but she seemed to be erring on the side that it was all ‘in my head’… or I had some sort of virus (she joked, “maybe even coronavirus”). Even so, she offered me the opportunity to take oxygen for half an hour, which I accepted. A kind instructor took me for the oxygen and proceeded to ask lots of questions which led me to believe that he was a little more concerned about me than the manager— fuelling my own fears.
I think anyone who receives oxygen would feel better afterwards and so did I. The dive team advised me to head back to my room and watch some tv.
It had been a very hot day so by the time I’d made the 15-minute walk back to my hostel I was sweaty and feeling rough again. I let the A/C pathetically spit out luke-warm air to try to cool me whilst I laid out on my bed. I made it through 10 minutes of New Girl before I couldn’t take it anymore. It’s hard to fully describe my symptoms but I generally knew I wasn’t feeling ‘right’. My left arm felt strange and I had random aches. I lacked focus, and I found normal things tough to do. I also had no appetite whatsoever. It was then that I entered panic mode.
It was 6 pm and the sun had started to set. I was determined that I needed medical attention and I needed to get onto the mainland (as there was no medical doctor on this island). I again took the 15-minute sweaty walk to the dive shop and I had zero care in the world about mosquitoes (only a couple of days before I had serious paranoia about catching dengue again but now I had greater worries). As soon as the manager saw me she came over to me.
I asked if there was any way to get off the island (I didn’t care how much it would cost) but I was told that there was no way at this time as darkness had fallen. The manager suggested I got a top-up with minutes so that I could call DAN (the Divers Alert Network) but that’s all they could do to help. I followed those instructions and then jumped on the back of a moped taxi because I couldn’t face another walk back to my hostel.
When I got back to my room I had lost all hope. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. I didn’t know what I could do; if there was anything I could do. I was scared. I was alone. And I wondered if I’d make it through the night.
My only hope was to ring DAN Philippines. The operator sounded a little worried about me — especially because no doctor was around to check me over. He did, however, reassure me that my symptoms should not worsen overnight. All I could do was put my trust in what DAN said, but I was sceptical.
Next, I tried to call my insurance company but the minutes I’d bought didn’t allow me to make international calls so I had to call my Dad and get him to let them know. I was hesitant to call my parents. I didn’t want to worry them but it was my only option.
Food was the last thing on my mind but I knew that I had to eat something so I ordered a small meal and then took a ginger tea to my room to try to calm myself down. I was very lucky to have a call with a friend who had previously worked on Malapascua Island. That conversation with Vera calmed me more than I could’ve expected — she listened to my story about what had happened that day and then told me about what was going on in her life as a distraction from my current situation. I needed a friend at that moment. And I’m glad that she was there.
That night was scary though. I cried in front of a stranger with whom I was sharing a dorm. I wrote in my journal about my worries at that moment. I’ve never felt that scared that I might die. Being alone abroad, and not fully knowing the progression of DCS when you have a mild case (which I didn’t know at the time), was probably one of the scariest moments of my life. Paradise had become hell.
I took some ibuprofen before bed and put my head down. Around 1 am I woke up to my phone ringing — I’d left it on because I knew that the insurance company was going to be calling me (seeing as I couldn’t make international calls). The lady asked some questions and it was clear that she was concerned about my situation. Anytime when someone expressed concern for me, it freaked me out a little bit more but it also made this solo traveller feel like someone was looking out for her — even from thousands of miles away.
11/3/20 — the day the pandemic was announced
The next morning I was pleasantly surprised to wake up to my alarm at 6 am. I was still alive. That’s not a feeling I’ve ever had before and not one that I’d like to experience again for a long time.
The previous evening had been an emotional rollercoaster and I wondered if I’d been a little dramatic because I woke up feeling… better. Not 100%, but definitely better. And the DAN operator had said to go straight to the chamber if I felt the same as the night before, which I didn’t.
I made it to Cebu City and from there a little confusion ensued — I thought I might be fine based on further advice from DAN so I didn’t go straight to the hospital. However, once I spoke to a UK GP late in the evening things changed…
The GP whom I spoke to was lovely and listened to the story of my symptoms but said, “I can’t say over the phone that you’re okay. You should go and get checked out by a doctor.”
“Now?” I asked.
“Yes”, she replied, “the sooner, the better”.
This cued my first midnight trip to the emergency room. The idea of going to the hospital abroad in the dead of night freaked me out: I was scared of the unknown, which was dealing with a foreign medical system. And I had no idea how much it would cost (I’m very privileged that that thought had never crossed my mind in my life, up to that point).
When I arrived I was seen to and eventually tests were taken. I was then advised that I’d have to wait 3–4 hours for the results. I couldn’t leave without signing a waiver so I slumped myself on a bench and waited. During that time, the waiting area was evacuated twice, and based on my lack of Filipino listening skills I could only assume that there were suspected patients with coronavirus.
Lucky for me the results came back earlier than expected: all clear! Even my nitrogen levels were fine. But the thing about DCS is that it seems to be entirely symptom-driven in its treatment. They said I’d have to go and see the hyperbaric specialist for an official diagnosis, but I could rest assured that my vitals were all fine.
I made it back to my hostel around 4 am and set my alarm for 8:30 am. I had been told that the hyperbaric chamber opened around 9 am or 10 am — they weren’t fully sure about the time.
12/3/20 — receiving a diagnosis
The next day, after little sleep and no breakfast I went out to find the hyperbaric chamber. In my search, I endured a wild taxi tour around Cebu City where I ended up inside a Philippino family’s home and later at a military base. Things weren’t going well and I was giving up hope. I was seriously tired and hungry so by lunchtime I decided to find some food and get a nap before considering my next options.
It wasn’t until 3 pm on 12th March, I found the hyperbaric team and I was finally diagnosed with mild DCS.
And that’s when I broke down in tears.
In my 48 + hour ordeal, I knew it was a possibility but I hoped that I was wrong. Finally receiving the diagnosis was a major shock and a big relief.
Over the next week, I had 3 sessions in the hyperbaric chamber (2.5–3 hours per session) and I ended up making two more trips to the Emergency Room. I hardly slept, I had no appetite (so the hyperbaric nurses were having to persuade me that eating ANYTHING was a good idea), and I had to start dealing with the fact that I needed to buy a flight home as soon as I was medically fit to do so. There was a pandemic in full force and the UK was inevitably heading into lockdown. I also had a travel buddy who had arrived on the day of my first treatment and I felt terrible that I was leaving her. It was a tumultuous time.
8 days after my first session in the chamber, I arrived home. My arrival coincided with the start of the soft lockdown in the UK. I was lucky that things fell into place and also that I had space to recover, both physically and mentally, from the events in March.
I guess the major takeaway from all of this is that although I was solo, I didn’t get through it all on my own. People need people, and I needed so many people throughout this experience.
The hyperbaric team at Cebu City hospital were incredible and I became very fond of them after spending a week with them. Whilst I worried about getting a flight home, they joked with me and we got to know each other, such that I felt comfortable and calm in their presence. I hope they’re all doing well because I know that they got drafted in to help out with the coronavirus efforts on Cebu island.
I also have to show a large amount of appreciation to my family — they did all they could even from halfway across the world. I know that they were worried sick but they remained calm and on-call whenever I needed to chat or when I needed to contact my insurers. I genuinely don’t know what I would’ve done without them! My parents were incredible and my brother even stepped up to do what he could. It’s good to know that you’re loved and can rely on people when you’re in a bad situation.
I also have to thank many friends who took the time to call me, message me and check-in with how I was doing — it meant a lot.
This experience won’t stop me diving or solo travelling in the future but I will be taking certain precautions before I go diving again. I hope that this doesn’t put anyone off diving because I owe a lot of incredible experiences and beautiful friendships to the hobby. This experience was a freak accident and one that maybe I had to experience on this strange journey through life.