Decompression chamber saves lives

Photo by Mira Shah Dr. Gabriel Idrovo's medical center with decompression chamber

Helps divers who stay down too long, come up too quickly

Dr. Gabriel Idrovo, a middle-aged man with a round face and salt and pepper hair, was standing beside a massive, white machine in his medical center in the Galapagos Islands. The machine looked something like a small spaceship.

The immense, cylindrical contraption, with a couple of round windows and a red and blue stripe running horizontally along its sides, was a decompression or hyperbaric chamber, a medical device used to treat divers who stay down too long or ascend too quickly and suffer decompression sickness, sometimes referred to as the bends.

Decompression sickness can cause damage to the brain, lungs and other parts of the body,  and it can be fatal.

“This chamber saved a lot of lives,” Dr. Idrovo said in a conversation with me. .

Dr. Idrovo, 51, was born in Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador, and has been practicing medicine in Santa Cruz for years. He first came to the Galapagos, in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, when he was 25 years old to replace a friend for a month as a doctor on a cruise ship. The friend decided not to return and Dr. Idrovo stayed on for a year.

He worked as a Galapagos National Park guide and as a scuba instructor for a while. Then he went to Paris for further medical training and lived there for eight years.

Dr. Idrovo came back to the Galapagos in 2001 to take charge of a decompression chamber and later began his general medical practice. Now he operates a decompression chamber and sees a range of patients in his general practice.

The decompression chamber is in the same building as Dr. Idrovo’s general practice. He treats local people and tourists daily. A visit to the clinic is $30 for people who live in the Galapagos and $50 for tourists.

Dr. Idrovo said he designed his sleek, modern office building himself. It sits on a quiet street in Puerto Ayora, the largest town on the island of Santa Cruz. The chamber is past the waiting room to the left, tucked away in the back of the building, separate from his office and his patient evaluation rooms.

Diving is big business in the Galapagos. Dr. Idrovo began working with a decompression chamber in the Galapagos 13 years ago when scuba tourism was growing rapidly and many commercial fishermen were diving for sea cucumbers, slug-like sea creatures, which are prized in China and other Asian countries as a delicacy and as an aphrodisiac.

Starting in the early 1990s and into the early 2000s, demand from Asia for sea cucumbers was booming. Hundreds of people in the Galapagos were diving for them. It was a dangerous business.

Divers can remain underwater for a limited time. The deeper they dive the less time they can safely stay at the bottom.

Commercial divers routinely worked for hours at depths reaching 165 feet. The standard for scuba divers is to spend no more than four minutes at 165 feet.

When divers stay down too long or surface too fast, nitrogen builds up in their bodies, sometimes causing the bends.

Researchers say sea cucumber fishermen stayed under water for long periods because they feared that if they left a spot where they had found a lot of sea cucumbers, another diver would come in a take over the harvest.

Jane McKee

Sea cucumber fishermen used a long breathing hose connected to an air compressor on a boat at the surface. The hose approach is appropriately named the hookah method of diving.

Sometimes the compressor’s motor ran out of gas and the, air supply was cut off. Divers then quickly surfaced without taking a safety stop. Safety stops are common practice in diving. They allow divers’ bodies time to naturally recover underwater from high nitrogen levels. Unsafe diving procedures can lead to paralysis, coma, and seizures. All are symptoms of the bends.

Treatment before the chamber arrived was insufficient. “All they could do was send them to a hospital with oxygen and wait until they died,” Dr. Idrovo said. Six to 10 sea cucumber fishermen were dying every year. When the decompression chamber arrived, 30 fishermen a week were being treated.

Commercial divers severely depleted the sea cucumber population in the Galapagos. The government has enacted regulations to control the diving areas and seasons for sea cucumber fishing and environmentalists say they hope that the restrictions will allow the population to replenish.

Dr. Idrovo treats half a dozen scuba divers each year. Lately, he said, he has not been seeing commercial fishermen as patients.

He also uses his decompression chamber to treat patients with burns and open wounds, some caused by infection. The concentrated oxygen in the chamber leads to a faster than usual regeneration of damaged cells.

The treatment is known as hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Dr. Idrovo said about 40 people a year receive this therapy at his clinic.

Dr. Idrovo treated one woman in the chamber with an infected mosquito bite. Her infected leg was covered in raw wounds with blackened and dangling skin that hung from her leg. He said that after treatment in the chamber, the woman’s leg was almost completely restored to normal.

Claudia Molina is a dive instructor at Scuba Iguana, one of many dive shops in Puerto Ayora. She said that at least five of her customers have been treated in Dr. Idrovo’s decompression chamber.

Molina has also been treated in the chamber. She felt dizzy after a long, deep dive and worried that she had decompression sickness. She is not sure how serious her case was but she said, “I am thankful for the chamber. “ #



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2 responses to “Decompression chamber saves lives”

  1. Mira Vijay Shah Mira Shah says:

    Nicely written article, Jane! Loved hearing about Idrovo and his decompression chamber. Wish I could go there again.

  2. brackman says:

    This is great!