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May 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 43, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Cause of All These Diving Deaths?

heart attacks lead the way

from the May, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In February, Scott Hacker (El Cerrito, CA), 51, said, "I watched a person die today." He was diving at Silfra, the freshwater dive site in Iceland where two tectonic plates collide. An unidentified 65-year-old American tourist died of a heart attack after snorkeling in the crystal-clear but freezing-cold water. It's the eighth such fatality to occur at Silfra in as many years, and park officials have raised concerns about many of the 50,000 people who visit each year, suggesting that tourists find it hard to adjust to the 37°F (3°C) cold water. Park Ranger Ólafur Örn Ólafsson says, "People pretend to be in good health, but turn out not to be."

An experienced British diver who had previously appeared very fit and well, Neil Fears, 51, died while diving the Stanfield, a WWI wreck that lies off the coast of Cabo de Pallos, Murcia, in Spain in August 2015. The coroner later concluded the deceased was unaware of a heart condition, moderate-to-severe coronary atheroma, which was a contributory factor leading to his drowning.

Charlene Burch Weston made thousands of dives since she first fell in love with scuba in Roatan in the 1970s, but surfacing with friends from a dive off Jupiter on January 21st this year, she didn't feel well.

Unbeknown to her sister, Elaine Love-Stewart, Charlene had been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation -- an irregular heartbeat that can lead to complications. Her heart stopped several times after the dive, and she was revived, but the resulting brain damage was significant. Aged 65, she died a few days later.

Recently, Dr. Burton Stodgill of Paducah, KY (aged 47), died from a presumed heart attack on March 2nd after surfacing and not feeling well in Bimini, the Bahamas, when diving with Neal Watson's Undersea Adventures.

On March 5th, a yet-to-be-named diver went missing off Motonau Island, New Zealand, after climbing the ladder of a dive boat, when he cried out, grabbed his chest and fell back in the water.

The attrition rate is high. By the late 1980s, the baby boomers were out of college, with well-paying jobs and embracing the good life. At that time, interest in activities like scuba diving surged. Today, with families grown up and flown the nest, people of that generation are reacquainting themselves with old interests. However, they are returning with baggage they never had before. That baggage is health issues.

"The number one cause of medical-related dive fatalities is cardiac events," says Ted Clark, associate director for aquatics and scuba diving at Nova Southeastern University.

Thanks to time and cost factors, people under the age of 40 usually dive less than older divers. DAN tallied 561 deaths related to scuba in the four years 2010 - 2013. Many were over 40 years old. Fifty-eight percent of men and 59 percent of women fatalities were aged 50 or older. Although drowning is the primary cause of death, it falls into second place behind cardiovascular disease as the leading disabling injury.

What's the answer? Regular check-ups and medical examinations. Suffering a heart attack while diving gives you little chance of survival.

Are you fit enough? When looking at deaths, two things pop out. Deceased divers are frequently obese and frequently have undetected cardiac issues.

Divers over 60, of course, should have annual medical exams. And during those exams, divers should talk about the stressors associated with scuba. While an electrocardiogram should be part of one's physical, a diver with any questions should consult with a cardiologist. Our editor, Ben Davison, does so regularly, though he has no cardiac issues. His cardiologist tells him that if a patient over 60 says he wants to take up scuba diving, he insists on a stress test. He also insists on a stress test for anyone who has been out of the water for a few years. Cardiac-related deaths while scuba diving are just too frequent for anyone to take a chance.

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