Wire, Vol. 10, No. 3 - Fall 1996

Navy doctor helps divers decompress

I can never get enough of being underwater," says Lt. Kyle Petersen '90, a Navy doctor with a passion for scuba diving. As diving medical officer for the Roosevelt Roads Naval Hospital in Puerto Rico, he saves the lives of divers who find themselves in deep water, due to inexperience, poor judgment or equipment failure. Petersen runs the island's only hyperbaric chamber, treating victims of all diving injuries that occur off the coast of Puerto Rico‹and sometimes patients from St. Thomas and the Dominican Republic, as well.

Petersen learned to dive near Cape Ann and became certified as a civilian diver while he was a student at WPI. He earned an M.D. at the University of Osteopathic Medicine, then spent six months at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center learning what can go wrong when divers exceed the limits of their equipment or their bodies.

"When I first got out of dive school, I was terrified to go back under water." he says. "They showed us a video of a dog's spine filling up with billions of tiny bubbles as it ascended. They told us, ŒThis is what happens to every diver on every dive.' After that, every time I came out of the water and felt a little tingle or sneeze I got nervous. It took a while before I could enjoy diving again."

Petersen has been stationed on Puerto Rico since January. He has not seen a single Navy member for a diving-related injury. "The Navy is pretty serious about safety. It is drilled into your head that safety is No. 1, and the rules are rigorously enforced. It's very good training."

Tourists are another matter. Inexperienced divers bring on trouble by diving too deep, staying too long, or coming up too fast‹sometimes in a panic. Spear fisherman are often tempted to push the limits, hoping to get that big lobster. (Lobstering is done by hand in Puerto Rico, because moray eels would invade lobster traps and gobble up the catch.)

"A lot of people don't realize what an inherently dangerous sport diving is," say Petersen.

"It takes a lot of training, and you have to be constantly careful and aware of the safety considerations. There are a lot of knuckleheads out there who just jump in the water and go for it without knowing what they're doing."

The risks include arterial gas embolus and decompression sickness. A gas embolus starts as a tiny air bubble in the lungs, which enlarges as the diver ascends. An embolus can block circulation to the brain, causing stroke-like symptoms such as slurred speech, numbness, paralysis or mental impairment.

Decompression sickness is often called "the bends," because pain in the joints can make the victim double over in agony. When a diver rushes to the surface without "decompression breaks," nitrogen bubbles are released, causing numbness, tingling or pain. If bubbles lodge in the spinal cord, bleeding and permanent paralysis can occur.

Victims of emboli and the bends are treated in the hyperbaric chamber, which uses high atmospheric pressure to crush large bubbles. The chamber also supplies oxygen to oxygen-starved tissues. Petersen also covers the Naval Hospital's Emergency Room and the Naval Special Warfare Unit. He enjoys the challenges of medicine, even with the rotating shifts. "The hours are not the greatest," he says. "And it's not as exciting as the TV shows‹you see a lot of rashes and back pain and earaches‹but it's worthwhile. Even though you're exhausted, you know you did a lot of good in a day."

Petersen does get some chances to dive himself, with maintenance teams and the SEALs‹ the Navy's underwater stealth team. On a recent leave, he enjoyed recreational diving off the remote West Coast of Costa Rica. "It's a great way to relieve stress," he say, "floating face-to-face with mantha rays and whale sharks. And if you're lucky, you may come back with a lobster."

Joan Killough-Miller

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