Pensacola, Florida
Monday September 16th 2019

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Florida’s Big Bend

By Jeremy Morrison

The siren’s call, splashed across tourism brochures, is irresistible, calling divers to the Sunshine State to explore the depths offshore, never revealing the dangers that lurk.

But Eilene Beard, owner of Scuba Shack in Pensacola, always fills Odysseus and its crew in on the risks before taking them out in the Gulf.

“The first thing I do is hand them a medical form,” Beard said.

The divers are given a standard safety briefing, and then they’re informed that if anyone gets the bends, there is no hyperbaric chamber in the area to treat decompression sickness.

“We tell ’em in the dive briefing,” Beard explained. “I see expressions change, but it doesn’t stop ’em; they still go.”

Decompression sickness, or the bends, is a big deal. It occurs when a diver ascends to the surface from the depths too quickly, causing nitrogen bubbles to form and expand inside the body. It can kill a person in a most unpleasant fashion.

Treatment for the bends involves placing a person in a hyperbaric chamber, where they are provided pure oxygen and effectively taken back down to pressure, then brought slowly back up to atmospheric pressure.

Pensacola has not had such a hyperbaric chamber for years.

“It’d be nice to have one here, especially because of the Oriskany,” Beard said, pointing to one of the area’s crown-jewel, deepwater wreck dives.

This is an issue that Julio Garcia has been chasing for a while. With another summer diving season coming on, he groused about it some more during a recent presentation before the Escambia County Marine Advisory Board, where Beard sits as chairman.

Garcia serves as the director of the Hyperbaric Medicine Program at Springhill Medical Center in Mobile, Ala. He’s well known in the regional diving community and was introduced at the county meetings as “our closest chamber and our saving grace in this part of the world.”

Fresh from heart surgery, Garcia acknowledged his presentation might be a bit salty—“a week ago, they had my chest wide open”—and the salinity only increased a few days later on the phone as he dove deeper into the issue and searched for reasons why Northwest Florida was forsaking its divers.

“Because there’s not a big enough body count. That’s pretty blunt,” Garcia said. “I’m recovering from heart surgery, so I’m going to tell it like it is.”

Get Bent
There was a time when Garcia wondered if Florida might be more motivated to up its hyperbaric-chamber game if a diver got the bends and died. He doesn’t wonder anymore; he got his answer a couple of years ago.

“He was dead when he got to us, but he was alive in Pensacola,” Garcia said. “Apparently, one’s not enough. We’ve gotta get a higher death toll. Let’s roll the dice. It’s fucked up.”

Divers who get decompression sickness in Northwest Florida don’t have a lot of options. There’s nowhere to take them in Pensacola, so they’re driven to Springhill.

“My little community hospital in Mobile, Ala., is taking the brunt of Florida’s tourism industry,” Garcia said.

Last year, 11 Northwest Florida divers were taken to Springhill’s hyperbaric chamber for treatment. Another eight, Garcia explained to the marine advisory board, were treated at a facility at Naval Air Station Pensacola (NAS), but only members of the military and their family are allowed to use the base’s chamber.

This is not just a Pensacola problem. Any diver who has an issue in all of Northwest Florida is headed to Alabama. There is nothing else to do.

“Nothing. Like, we don’t have anything to treat you between here and Orlando. It blows my mind,” Garcia said. “It’s not going to take a fatality. We’ve already had one.”

This wasn’t always the case. John Peters, executive director of the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society in North Palm Beach, ticks off a list of Florida’s facility’s during a hyperbaric heyday of yesteryear—Tallahassee, West Palm Beach, Miami, Fort Myers, Tampa, Melbourne, Orlando, Panama City, Jacksonville, Gainesville … it’s a long list.

Peters use to work at the now-closed chamber in Tallahassee.

“We treated maybe 11 to 15 divers a year,” Peters said. “Where are these diving accidents going now? They’re going untreated unless it’s severe enough where you’re bent like a pretzel.”

Folks like Garcia and Peters have been on a bit of a crusade over the years, trying to convince the powers that be—hospital administrators, state legislators—how important it is to have chambers available to divers.

“We’ll talk to anybody who will listen,” Peters said. “It is a public health emergency.”

Unfortunately, no one listens.

“I hit DeSantis’s office in January. They blew it off,” Garcia said. “Rubio’s office didn’t say diddly-squat shit, didn’t contact me at all!”

These crusaders haven’t given up. But they’re not exactly optimistic either.

“It’s nothing new. I’m so jaded now because it’s ridiculous,” Garcia said. “I think it’s criminal. I absolutely think it’s criminal.”

The Bottom Line
The USS Oriskany is a big draw for divers. It’s heralded as the largest artificial reef in the country. At 212 feet, it’s particularly deep too.

Recreational divers are not suppose to go deeper than 130 feet. That’s barely beyond the Oriskany’s towers, which can be found around 84 feet.

“On occasion, we have the idiots who’ve just got to touch the damn deck, which is at 150, which means they are automatically in decompression,” said Beard.

When the aircraft carrier was sunk off of Pensacola in 2006, the issue of the need for a hyperbaric chamber to treat divers was brought up during community meetings.

“Baptist announced at those meetings that they were going to open a chamber,” recalled Kerry Freeland, owner of Dive Pros in Pensacola. “They didn’t operate it but for, like, four or five years.”

Baptist Hospital did operate a hyperbaric chamber available to divers for a few years. They shut that down in 2010.

Baptist actually still operates its hyperbaric chamber. It’s just not open for diving emergencies.

“While we do have hyperbaric chambers for scheduled wound care treatments, we do not have the chambers suitable for emergent hyperbaric care for decompression sickness, nor do we have round-the-clock credentialed staff with this specialization to support,” Kathy Bowers, Baptist’s public relations specialist, explained in a statement.

Garcia hears that line all the time. And he’s not buying it.

“I call bullshit,” he said. “If they know how to treat chronic wounds, then they know how to treat diving injuries.”

Garcia has another theory about why hospitals like Baptist don’t service the diving community.

“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “They don’t want to be on call.”

In order to treat divers, a hyperbaric chamber must be available 24 hours a day, with trained staff on call. That’s different than managing scheduled wound care treatments. It gets expensive. And the bends is rare.

“The bottom line is it’s not really profitable to make an emergency facility like a hyperbaric chamber available 24 hours,” said Brian Harper, director of communications with the Divers Alert Network, or DAN. “That’s a lot of staff to have on call. It’s hard to swallow for the hospital accountants and executives.”

It’s an economics-based issue, Harper said, and one that he doesn’t see an immediate fix for. Instead, he points to “creative solutions.”

“One chamber that immediately comes to mind would be the one on Catalina Island. They actually have a fundraiser within the diving community. Every year, there’s Catalina Chamber Day,” Harper said, explaining how the 31st annual event in the California community raised $122,000 for the cause.

Keep Banging the Drum
Garcia has been hammering this hyperbaric chamber issue for a while now. This won’t be the first story he’s seen on the subject.

“It’s not like it’s not been reported on. It’s ridiculous,” he said. “That’s why I’m so jaded. I haven’t given up, but I am jaded.”

But maybe, eventually, someone will listen.

“I’m hoping that enough public outcry is made that something is done in the state of Florida,” Garcia said.

Peters feels that it’s the responsibility of the hospitals to step up to the plate.

“Aren’t hospitals supposed to take care of patients? I’m sorry, I thought they were in the business of helping,” he said. “I’m saying this to my peers—you need to be more responsible.”

Freeland feels it’ll probably take some pressure from someone who wields influence over such facilities—wealthier donors and the like.

“If we keep banging the drum, then the people who have influence over the medical community can get something done, he reasoned.

Peters agrees, “Their voice matters. Because currently, the divers’ voice doesn’t matter.”

In the meantime, Florida continues to issue the siren’s call to divers, luring them to the Oriskany, luring them to the Florida Shipwreck Trail, and asking them to take a risk they shouldn’t have to.

“Now, we have all these lionfish tournaments,” Garcia sighs. “Now, let’s encourage recreational divers to extend bottom time. Now, that’s what the state of Florida is doing. It’s beautiful. You can’t make this shit up, man.”