Trust Your Gut… My Experience With Skin Bends

JAN 14, 2024

From the unexpected symptoms to the crucial role intuition played in my recovery, discover why trusting your gut may be the key to navigating the complexities of this uncommon but potentially life-altering affliction.  Kate wrote this blog for us several years ago and continues to dive regularly.

I am not a “thrill” diver. AT ALL. I love to dive, but I am the drop in, look around, float around and take some pictures kind of diver. That makes me happy. I don’t push limits, I don’t push tanks, I dive my computers without messing with settings. I am a true recreational diver.

The shore diving in January had been AWFUL…and for the whole month I only had four dives. Not nearly enough for living on Maui, let alone for someone who works at a dive shop and gets to (has to!) hear about everyone else’s cool critter sightings all day long, so I was thrilled to be able to get on the boat for some very much needed ocean therapy. I had friends and colleagues diving with me and the day was bright yet very windy, so a Molokini trip was out of the question.

I broke out my 5 mil suit, the one I only wear on boat dives because of the weight I have to carry to sink the darn thing. All my other equipment was the same. My main computer is a Suunto D4i and my back up is a Suunto Zoop that is part of my gauge console.

We suited up, dropped in and found beautiful water! I dove with two friends and it was a very normal dive: 68 minutes, max depth 57 feet. All within limits of both of my computers. There was little current, great vis, and yep, a good dive was had by all.

After a 72 minute surface interval (there WERE whales to watch you know), we dropped into our second site.
It was pretty much the same profile: 68 minutes of bottom time with 54 feet at max depth. This dive was also well within the limits of my computers. My profile matched my dive buddy’s. Everything was calm. All was right.

We had nudibranchs, frog fish, mating octopuses, devil scorpionfish – it was a good day!

I left the boat at 11:30 and headed home to clean gear and have lunch. Then, less than two hours later, my skin began to itch. More of a burn than an itch. At first, I didn’t think much of it…just kind of rubbed my belly…and moved to the couch. I napped for a few minutes, but awoke and the itching was still there.

Then I looked in the mirror.

My mid-section was red. Not crazy beet-red, but red and spreading around to my back.
I had never had anything like this happen to me ever so I ran through a mental check list. New detergent? No. New soap or shampoo? No. Eaten anything strange? No.

It suddenly got brighter in the room… as the light-bulb switched on.

I had gone diving.

It hit me hard.

I knew what was happening but did a quick search to confirm my suspicions; I was having symptoms of Decompression Sickness (DCS).

I chose the “phone a friend” option and my friend told me to immediately call DAN (1 919 684 9111).
DAN (Divers Alert Network) is a service and supplemental insurance where you can seek advice in these situations. Best of all, if you are traveling to exotic and or remote locations, DAN can help you get answers you need regarding symptoms. If you need evacuating, they help with that and help cover the costs.

Go put DAN in your phone right now.

I will wait…OH! You don’t HAVE DAN…I will really wait while you go online and GET DAN!

I spoke with Frances who asked me about my symptoms and dive profile and quizzed me a bit. I emailed her a picture of my belly (NOT attractive, but I was not really caring at this point, but the one in this blog is from the skin bends website). It was not long before I was told to go the hospital and also to get on oxygen as soon as I could.

Once again my “phone a friend” was on the job! Since I am lucky enough to work AT a dive shop, there was plenty of oxygen available. We have oxygen kits for our dive guides and we have a kit for the shop and they are assembled, full, and ready to go at all times. Never did I imagine that I would be on the receiving end of this though!

Before I left the house, I downloaded and took pictures of my dive profiles. I was not sure when I would be home or who would want the information. I also wore my dive computer so we had access to it in the ER. I grabbed my phone charger because, yes, I was not sure what my timing was going to be.

By 3:00, I was in the car on the way to the hospital breathing O2 set at 15. During the 30 or so minute drive we chatted.

I was feeling fine…just itchy…and a wee bit scared.

It was a little funny entering the ER with my own oxygen cylinder. I got a couple looks, but I was very glad to have it!
Thankfully, a quiet day meant I was triaged, processed and in a room within about 70 minutes of leaving my house.

By the time I was in a bed, the rash had all but dissipated. Being put on oxygen early made ALL the difference! The doctor could not see my rash but took my word, looked at my pictures, and we worked from there.

Blood was taken and blood pressure checked (THAT was through the roof due to nerves!) and I was given IV fluids.

After speaking with the nurses and doctor and giving a dive history, we were left to ourselves for a bit.

I was quite happy when my doctor reappeared to let me know he spoke with the only emergency doctor (Dr. Savaser) that dealt with DCS in ALL of the Hawaiian Islands at the time. Since I wrote this blog several years ago, I'm not sure who the head honcho is these days. 

I was told I blew my limits (did not) and the doc on Oahu said computers could be wrong (two of them?). I was a little less than happy with this piece of news from a non-diver.

THEN, I got an email from Dr Savaser! He asked for my pictures and he asked that I call him. He gave me his personal cell number, so I did. Over the phone, he was more relenting on the “you dived too long” theory.

We discussed my symptoms. Rash, itch…but really, nothing else. No joint aches. No confusion. Nothing! He urged me to travel to Oahu to be evaluated by his team and be put in “the chamber” to make sure I was okay.

I declined. I felt more than fine by now. He told me I would have a neurological test by the Maui team and I made sure I had it before being released. I passed it with no problem.

My official diagnosis was “Level 1 DCS” or “Skin Bends“, the lowest level of DCS while still having DCS.

After five hours in the emergency room and six hours total on oxygen, I was released.

So off we went, healthy and cleared, but really no answers to questions I had.

What had I done wrong?

DID I do anything wrong? What could I have done differently? How will this affect my diving in the future?

Here are a few of the answers.

Nothing. I did nothing wrong. Basically, it can come down to “S**t happens.” Yes, that’s the official word on it.

Differently? Well, these dives were like at least a hundred others I have had, so I’m not sure what I could have done differently, but I do know what I did before I moved forward.

I was checked out before I went back in the water. Dr. Savaser and my primary care physician recommended a four-week diving hiatus. Four weeks (DURING WHALE SEASON!! ARGH). BUT, I did as advised.

What I will do going forward?

I will make sure I am super hydrated before I dive. I tend to not like to drink much the mornings I dive because, well, I “don’t do that and I don’t lie about it” ☺

Right now, I’m kinda over “being the best breather”. I don’t HAVE to breath the tank or be the longest in the water. If I miss something, it is going to have to be okay.

I will use Nitrox on my boat dives. These tend to go deeper, so it’s the safe play.

I will be conservative in my dive profiles.

All of the above I can and will do.

Be aware of your body. Listen to your gut. Don’t dismiss symptoms.

While I was well within limits, I leave you with this, as was said to me: Computers don’t get DCS…divers get DCS.

Aloha, Kate

UPDATEMy experience with level 1 DCS (skin bends) was 7 years ago!  As I reread the blog everything comes back to me like it was yesterday.  Here are a couple of updates from me:

YES!  I ALWAYS use Nitrox on my boat dives.  It's an added cost I'm willing to pay.  YES! I have stayed  conservative with my dives profiles and dive times.  Since I've written this, I have had three friends who have had the same experience. More people have let us know that they read the blog and had similar experiences.  Diving has become an incredibly safe sport, but sometimes, as in life, things just happen.  Be Safe.  Be Careful  Listen to your body! Only you know you!  -Kate