How to rupture your ear drum at 97m (and live to dive another day)


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The dive

The final 5 minutes preparation before the dive had gone ok.

There is always some nerves but I have learnt to deal with this in competitions and it was no worse than usual. However the fact that I was going for 100m and that it was a national record attempt again probably played around somewhere at the back of my mind.

Final breath was good, packed a lot of extra air as planned but then messed up the duck-dive entry, just rushing things trying to get the dive started (…novice mistake!) I had to do two arm pulls to get myself under the surface which upset the mind a little but I settled down and managed to focus on relaxing in to the first 25m of descent swimming.

My alarm sounded at 25m and I went in to freefall and filled my mouth with as much air as I could, the air that I would use to equalize with on the deep descent. My mind was relaxed as I glided in to the freefall, focusing on equalizing but at the same time letting go of thoughts and trying just to feel the water rushing past, enjoying the thrill of plunging to depth, the thrill of the speed, and also hoping that I would have enough air in my mouth to keep me equalizing the ears to the bottom. (ahhh! Here is the first indicator that something is fundamentally wrong – at this point I still had doubts…wasn’t sure that I would have the ability to reach the bottom!).

As I got deeper I felt the air in my mouth getting smaller and smaller and I was getting closer and closer to my last equalizations. And then it ran out…bugger…and I wasn’t at the bottom yet! I looked down and slowed right down, knowing it couldn’t be that far as I knew I was already deep, I saw the bottom plate at the end of the line. It only looked a few more meters and I really wanted this dive, I decided to go for it, felt my ear drums being pushed in, but it didn’t seem too bad, wasn’t too painful, and I was almost there, just a little further….ping!…sh#t…I knew straight away the right eardrum had broken.

My thoughts seemed pretty clear surprisingly, didn’t feel that much narcosis despite the depth. I turned immediately and started swimming back up kicking strongly to try and gain some distance but after just a few meters everything went crazy, in my head the rope which I was following spun first one way an then the other. I couldn’t really make out what was happening immediately, so I tried to follow the rope, diving sideways first one way and then the other, thinking maybe that I had been hit by current which had knocked me sideways, but the line kept spinning out of control and I couldn’t tell which way was up or down (and I’m still over 90m down).

I realized it was vertigo from the ruptured ear drum at this point and reached out to try and grab the rope and get some orientation (when cold water hits the inner ear through a ruptured ear drum it causes vertigo – and the water was 17 degrees at this depth) I found the rope and stopped and paused to think! OK… I’m in trouble and still a long way down. I though OK I’ll tug on the rope a few times to signal to the guys on the surface to pull the rope up with the electric winch.

I tugged hard on the rope and waited a few seconds but nothing happened…bugger again! I would have to just get myself up to the surface, so I started pulling really hard fuelled by stress and a little panic. The ascent seemed to go on forever and the urge to breathe was getting so intense, the diaphragmatic contractions so strong that I thought I was going to breathe water in. A voice in my head questioned whether I would be able to keep from breathing in water as the force of the contractions was so intense, but another voice said of course I would be able to as breathing in water was not an option, I would just keep going until I black out and hope that it was enough.

Then I saw the first safety diver, what a relief!! I extended my arm and asked for help and the safety diver grabbed me and started swimming me up, another safety diver swam down and helped grabbing me from behind and putting a hand over my mouth to protect my airways, I was still conscious and thinking that this was un-necessary (but then shortly after this I must have blacked out). The next thing I remember is being at the surface with people shouting at me to breath, I tell them that I’m OK, that my ear has ruptured, they tell me that I am spitting up blood and to go breath some oxygen as I am squeezed. The stress of the ascent is already fading from mind as the elation of being back on the surface and OK over-rides it! Phew…made it!

mike-board-down-cwt-deep-close

So what went wrong?

I had arrived in Kalamata, Greece for the pre-competition training prior to the World Championships with great hopes of setting some new personal bests and diving below 100m. My preparation in Gili Trawangan had been good in the month before arriving; I had managed to get back down to 90m dives and felt fit and strong from my fitness and strength training program so I was confident I could perform well.

My first dives in Kalamata were 80m CWT and then 80m FIM just to get used to the conditions, then in the following days I did 93m CWT and then turned early on an attempted 98m due to a poor freefall, I then repeated the 98m dive and got to the bottom on the next day. This is probably where things started to go wrong and where I first failed to recognize the level my diving was currently at. I managed to make it to the bottom but again I was riding my ears in the last 5m or more and only just made it.

What should I have taken away from this dive? It highlighted that I still do not have the equalization needed to dive to the depths that I was seeking. I could confidently dive to 90-95m, but 95-100m was a lottery and I did not have anything new to try to overcome this limit at this stage. However, I ignored this fact and instead decided to go for 100m anyway and just hope that I had enough air to equalize to the bottom!

…and what went right?

I got back up to the surface, almost all the way anyway. The training I had done prepared me well to deal with the situation, I was strong enough both physically and mentally to react well. I have been asked whether the dive has left me with doubts about diving deep again, but the answer is exactly opposite, and I actually feel more confident now that I will deal with problems at depth in the right way, should it happen again.

…the damage to the ear

The ear drum was completely ripped open. The endoscope picture that I saw when being treated by the ENT doctor in Kalamata immediately after the rupture showed that the tympanic membrane was an open flap, attached only on one side (about 30%).

 

It required being pulled back across the opening to the middle ear and patched in place with paper, and this still left a gaping hole which would take weeks to heal. In my opinion it was a mess but I was trying to be optimistic.

The ENT in Kalamata did great work in patching things up though and estimated recovery would take 2-3 months. In fact it took about 4 weeks before the hole closed over completely. During this time I had tinnitus and partial loss of hearing in the right ear. I stayed out of the water for 7 weeks in total, keeping the ear completely dry to maximize the chances of a good recovery. This seems to have worked OK. I was back in the pool after 6 weeks, back diving after 7 weeks. As I prepare for Vertical Blue, 8 weeks on, I have my fingers crossed that it has healed strong enough. Dived 94m in the Blue Hole today and it feels pretty good!

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