Paralyzed in Grenada




Soon after surfacing from her first dive of the day, Deborah Newman felt a spasm in her upper back followed by a squeezing sensation in her chest, hypersensitive skin, weakness and nausea.


In 2002 I had applied to law school (at age 50) and was waiting anxiously to hear if I had been accepted. To distract myself I decided to take a dive trip to Grenada.

After a great first day of diving, I awoke early on the second day eager for more. I prepared my camera gear and boarded the catamaran for a guided group dive. We dived the Shakem, a popular wreck with a maximum depth of approximately 85 feet on the sheltered Caribbean side of Grenada. The dive lasted 37 minutes and included a long reef ascent and a four-minute safety stop.

I had no problems during the dive; I took photos and stayed with the group. After the safety stop, I surfaced and pulled myself to the boat with a towline (there was some current on the surface). While I was climbing the ladder I felt a spasm in my upper back; at first I didn't think it was anything serious. I removed my buoyancy compensator and weight belt and sat down to rest. I told the other divers I would be sitting out the second dive.

Within 10 minutes the pain had radiated around my body, and my chest felt like it was being squeezed. My skin began to feel hypersensitive, and I was weak and nauseated. I decided to take off my wetsuit, but when I tried to pick up my right foot to remove my boot, it would not move. Within minutes I could not move either leg, and I realized both were paralyzed. At this point I knew I was in trouble. I asked the captain for oxygen, and thankfully a full cylinder was on board. I began inhaling it immediately, and after a little while I had consumed it all.

The captain radioed the dive shop as the boat rushed to shore. Meanwhile I was wailing that I needed a bathroom and that my bladder was going to explode. When we arrived, two strong guys picked me up under my arms and dragged me off the boat and put me into a car, and I was driven to a local doctor's office. Medical staff there put me on a toilet, and nothing came out.

At that point, my priority was to get to the hospital so I could be catheterized as soon as possible. We raced to St. Augustine's Medical Services, a small, private hospital near St. George's, where a doctor immediately relieved my bladder, put an IV into my arm and began administering oxygen. The dive staff had already contacted DAN®, and medical staff there offered advice to the doctor about my interim emergency treatment. DAN also arranged — no questions asked — a jet air ambulance to fly me at low altitude from Grenada to Barbados, where there was a hyperbaric chamber. I remember thinking how relieved I was to be a DAN member and to have DAN dive-accident insurance.

The events that followed were a blur. I was freaked out about being paralyzed, but I was also thinking analytically about what would happen next. I was given some drugs to calm me down, but I remained anxious. I remember riding in an ambulance from the hospital to the tarmac, where I was lifted by some sort of forklift and placed on a medevac jet. I breathed pure oxygen the whole way.

On the ground in Barbados I was met by an ambulance and taken directly to the chamber on the Barbados Defense Force base. The chamber, which has since been replaced with a newer one, was just big enough for one patient and one tender, who helped me get on and off the heavy oxygen mask every 20 minutes and communicated with the chamber operator.

I spent 10 days in Barbados, eight of which involved five to seven hours in the chamber. Each day I noted incremental improvements to my balance and strength, and by the end of my stay I could stand up from my wheelchair and walk slowly with a walker. After 10 days the treating physician, Michael Brown, M.D., in consultation with the doctors at DAN, decided I had improved as much as I could, and arrangements were made for me to fly home to New York.

DAN arranged for a medical escort to fly to Barbados and accompany me to New York. I was provided with a wheelchair and enough oxygen to last the whole trip. Once again, an ambulance picked me up at the airport, and this one took me to Mount Sinai Hospital, where I was admitted to the hospital's spinal rehabilitation unit. They immediately did a Doppler ultrasound test and discovered a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) behind my right knee. I began taking blood thinners and embarked on an intense regimen of physical and occupational therapy at Mt. Sinai's acute rehabilitation unit for spinal cord injuries. I was the only patient whose injury did not involve an injury to the spine — only the spinal cord.

The day after I arrived at Mount Sinai, my boyfriend brought me my mail, and lo and behold I had been accepted to New York Law School while I was away. At the time I did not think it would be possible to attend, but I sent in my deposit and committed to working as hard as possible to get there. Four months later I became a first-year law student, and I spent the next three years juggling my physical needs (which included continuing physical therapy) and intense study. I took the New York bar exam three times and finally passed it in 2007 at age 55. I now walk with a cane and work from home as a consultant and attorney focused on the intersection of music, copyright and technology.

I am grateful for DAN's incredible knowledge of decompression sickness and their quick response to my need for hyperbaric medical care. I am also grateful for the way DAN handled my medical expenses: They directly paid for the medevac to Barbados and the transportation home to New York — I never saw a bill. I paid the hospitals in Grenada and Barbados using my credit cards, but I got reimbursed from DAN, including the costs of phone calls to the U.S. from the hospital. In addition, DAN covered my medical co-pays for doctor's appointments and physical therapy for a full year from the date of my injury.

I don't dive anymore, but I still enjoy the water, wildlife and exploration. My boyfriend and I are now passionate kayakers, and we explore the lakes, rivers and reservoirs of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Instead of taking photos of angelfish and coral, I now take pictures of egrets, blue herons and sunbathing turtles.
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© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2017