One of my main goals for my visit to the island of Utila was to advance my scuba certification a little, and complete the PADI Rescue Diver Course. I had been told that the course would be fun, and that it would really make me a more confident diver. The confidence part I was really interested in, considering I had been a lifeguard for many years from high school thru college, and I always knew what to do around water, and how to assist people if needed. I even taught swimming lessons for a number of years as well, so I knew the importance of water safety and often spoke with many people about it. Well, last year in Cozumel, another diver went into what they call a “passive panic state”, that is she froze underwater, wouldn’t listen to instructions, and became a potential situation. Not knowing what to do, I called over our instructor, and he handled the situation. This made me uneasy, as I was always the person people came to for help around water, and for the first time I felt uncomfortable about not knowing what to do in an emergency situation. I also wanted to evaluate the dive shops teaching style, as I would like to continue advancing my certifications. Different shops around Utila have different feels. Some are a younger crowd with a party atmosphere, and some are an older crowd that seem to be more focused on learning, and then there’s some that are a healthy mix in between. The shop that I chose to dive at was Alton’s, and I chose it based on the recommendation of a friend who suggested I advance thru at least the Divemaster certification at that shop as he had worked there for a few years before moving on to other islands. I must say, I was not disappointed.
My instructor, Jess, obviously enjoyed teaching, and proved herself to be very knowledgeable and still made the class fun. A typical Rescue Diver class consists of 3 parts: Theory, Confined Water Exercises, and Open Water Exercises with an exam at the end. You must also be EFR (Emergency First Responder) certified, which means you have had recent CPR and First Aid training.
On my first day, my classmates Charlotte, Thomas and myself had to endure some very old (think: 1990’s) videos detailing various emergency situations that could occur while diving. While watching the videos, we would follow along in our books, and complete each of the knowledge reviews as we went along. Yes, it was boring as hell, the videos were really dated, but somehow it still managed to all sink in, and before long it was time for lunch.
In the afternoon we got our scuba gear and hopped in the water to do the confined water exercises. Some of the maneuvers we would learn were very similar to lifeguarding maneuvers, the quick reverse, sinking and swimming under and behind your victim, and shore rescues. Other maneuvers would include using scuba equipment to assist you in controlling the victim, or controlling an ascent. We did rescue breathing, cramp removal, and passive as well as panicked diver exercises. I must add here that my panicked diver, a DMT (Dive Master in Training), was a big dude named Scott, and he was from Texas. During the panicked diver exercise he really put me through the stress test underwater! Not really knowing what to expect, we descend to a depth of about 10′ and kneel on the bottom, and shortly after he signals that he is out of air and grabs for my regulator. Ok, I let him take it, and take my alternate regulator and put it in my mouth, and suddenly its a game of musical regulators. Everytime I put one in my mouth, the panicked diver no longer wanted the one he had and grabbed for mine, periodically giving me bubble explosions from clearing his regulator, all the while he was trying to undo his gear as well as my own gear. Stress test indeed! But it all adds up to being able to stop, think, breathe (if you have a regulator in your mouth!) and act, and it becomes easier and easier to react to surprise situations. We must have swapped regulators at least 20x in a minute, and I just kept rolling with the punches, and despite feeling like I would run out of air at some point I never did.
Now, most students do the exam the next morning, and then the open water exercises in the next afternoon, but not me! Nope, I would become the victim of “the WHOLE experience” in visiting Utila, and I would sprain my ankle later on the first night of my course. Evidently it is a pretty common medical issue on the island, probably due to the proximity of the street gutters, the speed of the tuktuks, and the amount of alcohol consumed. In my case, it was all three, but in my defense I was only lightly buzzed, and just didn’t see the gutter. That proved to be slightly helpful that night though as I didn’t really feel much, and continued to the next bar before walking home later that night. The next morning though it felt much worse, and I couldn’t barely stand on it, and hobbled as I walked. Certainly no condition to be doing tired diver tows, or anything that involved kicking. Bummer! Finding an ACE bandage on the island proved a bit difficult, but I eventually found one, and began my first week on the island on the injured list.
By Friday (a whole 3 days of no diving) my ankle was feeling better, and they were running another rescue course on Saturday, so I went to the local clinic to get cleared by the doc to go diving and removed from the injured list. Now I know most people would be hesitant to get medical treatment in a third world country, but I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised at not only the efficiency, but the cost and quality as well. So on Friday morning, the dive center called up the doctor and told me to grab a tuktuk and head off to the Centro de Saludad, aka the local medical center. The driver told me it would be 30 lempiras for the trip there (so its 60 lempiras round trip, about $3 US), and off we went. The medical center was a little nodescript building located in the middle of the jungle, quite a distance from the main road on the island, and I was happy to pay the $1.50 for the trip here. Once there I walked inside and they took my name and some basic information such as height, weight, and medical history. I had to pay my consultation fee of 170 lempiras ($8.50 US) wait for maybe 10 minutes, and the doctor saw me and diagnosed the severity of the sprain in my ankle as a grade 2 sprain. He cleared me for diving, and wrote up a prescription for some 600mg ibuprofen tablets, some prednisone tablets and a shot of steroids. The pills were all in bubble packs, and the needle for the shot was in a sterile one use pack, and was discarded right after. Even the steroids used for the injection were from a single use ampule. In total, the medications cost me 300 lempiras ($15 US) and I was out the door. Lucky for me, there was a tuktuk going down the street, and I grabbed a ride back to town for another 30 lempiras, making my entire medical experience about $26.50 US, including transportation both to and from the medical center.