an introduction: how i learned to be an adventurer, then got diabetes via the bends

This article is designed to serve as an introduction to the beginning of this blog and how I came to start it. It’s a little more narrative than I usually like to be but I think it’s an important cornerstone of what the blog is all about.


another time at the quarry – looking grumpy!

I never used to have much adventurous spirit, it only really extended to trying interesting food if it came my way; on the whole I was a pretty complacent sort of person. Some time in my mid-20s that all changed, I’d finished my bachelors degree in physics and I’d decided that meant I was qualified to be a biologist. I’ll clarify here that this isn’t a life story, just the key points of a transition in a way of thinking. I’d joined a new research group (where I still am) and my PhD supervisor suggested that I could come on their annual trip to ‘Lizard’. I timidly asked what ‘Lizard’ was. “It’s an island on the Great Barrier Reef where we do all our field-work, you might be able to come, can you scuba dive?”.  The only obvious response was “not yet”, and I haven’t looked back, as they say.

Since then I’ve done about 70 dives, mostly in English waters but it was the cause of me finding an activity that really drove me, something I hadn’t had before. It led me to be the sort of person I currently am, where an evening in (when I’m not thesis writing) is spent planning a trip with barely a modicum of complacency.

About a year after I’d done my first open water dive at Brixham Breakwater in Devon, I’d done about 50 dives around the UK and Australia and was starting to experiment with more advanced equipment. My buddy Jon and I had taken to toying around with various ideas in a local quarry and one day we were trying double cylinder set ups (this isn’t a diving blog so I’ll spare the details) to go deeper for longer. On the first dive of the day we were 30 metres down (imagine 6 average two-floor houses on top of each other) when we encountered a problem; Jon’s main breathing regulator had become stuck open due to the cold and was spraying air out at a alarming pace. After exchanging signals we headed for the surface, but unfortunately we’d made some miscalculations and were too buoyant to ascend at the proper speed, something compounded by Jon losing masses of weight (air is heavy believe it or not..). What this meant was that what nitrogen our bodies had taken on board wasn’t leaving at the expected rate and instead took the form of small bubbles of gas getting trapped in our blood and tissues. However, all was well when we reached the surface a minute or two later, so we had a long break and continued diving for the rest of the day, albeit with some changes to our weighting.


that’s me on the chamber monitor

The rest of the weekend everything was fine and neither of us noticed any problems from our fast ascent but on the Monday morning I woke up with a terrible head (without having been drinking I’ll have you know) and was weirdly tired. Nevertheless I carried on and went to work. Throughout the morning my vision was blurry and slow and my hands became increasingly fumbly. To be honest it’s hard to remember how I felt. On speaking to Jon, he convinced me to call the Diving Diseases Research Centre (DDRC) in Plymouth, the best recompression centre in the UK and they advised me to come down for a visit. It turned out I had suffered what’s called a constitutional and neurological bend, one form of decompression illness or ‘The Bends’. Effectively, nitrogen bubbles were blocking some of the blood supply to my brain (among other parts of my body) which was causing the symptoms. There’s only one real cure for the bends, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, pressurizing the body to make the bubbles smaller and breathing oxygen to stop them from coming back.

After two stints in the recompression chamber and three days on observation in Plymouth the bubbles were gone and I was as close to normal as I was going to get. Just prior to discharge I decided to mention that I’d been dehydrated in the weeks leading up to the bend, my training had taught me that this was a risk factor. One of the quick thinking doctors took a quick blood glucose reading and it was abundantly clear that I had type 1 diabetes. My blood sugar was 3 times the normal maximum and my body had attempted to reduce it by passing sugar out in my urine. This had left me dehydrated and with more viscous blood during my dives, meaning that the gas was having trouble moving around in my blood and allowing me to breathe it out and that’s what had lead to the bend.

In this blog I intend to write about my experiences adventuring as well as how those experiences are influenced by my diabetes and coeliac disease. This story is one I’ve told countless times in the 13 or so months since it happened and encapsulates how an adventure sport I’d found so liberating also highlighted an underlying condition before it became much more serious. Many of those diagnosed with type 1 diabetes are in a much worse state than me when they end up in hospital and I’m very lucky to have been treated by the extremely conscientious doctors at the DDRC. I resumed diving about 9 months after my diagnosis at the advice of the DDRC and am now medically cleared to dive indefinitely due to my excellently controlled diabetes, but that’s another story.


3 responses to “an introduction: how i learned to be an adventurer, then got diabetes via the bends

  1. Glad it all worked out ok for you. Lesson 1 – hydration! Lesson 2 – after any sort of incident like that, maybe don’t dive the rest of the day … Lesson 3 – never abandon the adventure! Hopefully all lessons learned with many more adventures to be had. Great story 🙂

    • Hey thanks for reading, glad to see anyone adventuring in the face of adversity. It’s also become abundantly clear how much of a factor hydration is in maintaining a proper off-gassing rate. All the best!

  2. Pingback: Treating a hypo, underwater! | going in anyway·

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