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Jamaica’s Updated Hyperbaric Chamber

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Jamaica’s new hyperbaric treatment facility at the Discovery Bay Marine Lab (DBML) has been in operation since March 2013. Though chambers typically last a long time, the old one had been in use since 1976, so the new chamber is a welcome replacement. While the old chamber was a one person chamber, the new one can hold up to eight people. According Peter Gayle, the hyperbaric safety director at the DBML, the new treatment facility was installed over a period of two years, while the old one was still in place. In total, 360 people used the old chamber over a period of more than 30 years. The Discovery Bay Marine Lab is one of two marine labs registered in Jamaica, and both labs are run by the University of the West Indies’ Department of Life Sciences. The facility in Discovery Bay is the only functional hyperbaric chamber in Jamaica.

The hyperbaric chamber treats a number of ailments, including all conditions that fall under decompression illness (also known as Divers’ Disease, The Bends or Caisson Disease). The main conditions of decompression illness (DCI) are decompression sickness (DCS) and pulmonary barotrauma. Divers can develop decompression sickness when they dive too deep, too often, or for too long. Decompression sickness occurs when nitrogen forms bubbles in the blood, which accumulates in large joints – like elbows and knees. The result is pain when bending the joints. The symptoms of pulmonary barotrauma are similar to those of a stroke. These symptoms are caused by a diver holding his or her breath as they come up to the surface for air.  The stroke-like symptoms come on very quickly – typically on or before reaching the surface. Symptoms include a loss of vision, speech, hearing, unconsciousness, and the inability to control one side of the body. It is possible for a diver to experience both decompression sickness and pulmonary barotrauma at the same time. In some cases, decompression illness can be fatal.

Sometimes, when divers realize they are sick, they try to explain away their symptoms instead of immediately seeking treatment. According to Gayle, “the delay and the oxygen shortage makes the problem worse.” The hyperbaric chamber is the only thing that can fix the problem. The chamber gives the patient oxygen to breathe, and the pressure helps to shrink the bubbles in the bloodstream.

Photography courtesy of Peter Gayle
Photography courtesy of Peter Gayle

The diving population in Jamaica includes commercial divers, commercial fishermen, and tourist divers. Commercial divers don’t often require the use of a hyperbaric chamber. These divers are very well trained to be able to clean and inspect ship hulls, or perform underwater welding. Accidents are less likely. The divers that typically need the hyperbaric chamber are commercial fishermen and tourists. Commercial fishermen dive for lobster and conch with little or no training, and must dive down for long periods of time to catch enough to make a profit.  Gayle says that the amount of people who come to the chamber varies. “Sometimes [we get] three or four people in a week, and then sometimes none for months.”

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Since March 2013, about fourteen divers have used the hyperbaric chamber – most of them fishermen. There are currently no guidelines for what fishermen can and cannot do, so there is no training or management which can lead to the prevention of diving accidents. Gayle says that work is being done to set up a maritime authority to help train the fishermen.

It is possible that more people will come to use the chamber once they realize that one exists in Jamaica. Countries like Venezuela, for example, have a vibrant medical tourism industry, and people can go to use the chamber. Gayle believes that Jamaica could eventually get some of that market. Turks and Caicos, Bermuda, Barbados, and the Cayman Islands also have hyperbaric chambers, so divers who might not have access to treatment facilities could fly at sea level to one of the islands with a chamber.

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Saba Igbe
Saba Igbe
Saba Igbe was born in Paris, France and raised in Lagos, Nigeria and Kingston, Jamaica. She now works as a writer in Kingston.

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