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Treatment brings diver back from the depths

4 May 2018

A fortnight ago 70-year-old Dutch national Steven Verbiest feared he may never walk again after surfacing too quickly from a dive off a remote atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

Paralysed in the left leg Mr Verbiest received a rare and aggressive decompression treatment at The Townsville Hospital’s hyperbaric medicine unit.

Today, Mr Verbiest is back on his feet with almost complete mobility and he and his wife are now contemplating their dream dives on the Great Barrier Reef.

Mr Verbiest and his wife Dineke had spent 10 days anchored at the Nuguria Atoll, 130 nautical miles from Buka in north-eastern PNG, diving and exploring the area.

On 17 April, on their seventh dive, Mr Verbiest surfaced in strong currents and knew immediately that he was in trouble.

“We were diving in quite a wide channel and we got caught in a strong outflowing current,” he said.

“When we unhooked from the reef the current took us up and down quite violently before we both surfaced.

“I felt tingling in my hands and feet and I knew immediately that something was wrong.”

Finding shallower water Mr Verbiest went back underwater to a depth of about five metres for about 20 minutes and resurfaced feeling better.

That night a huge lightning storm woke the couple and Mr Verbiest went outside to secure their boat.

“I went outside and everything was fine but suddenly my left leg just went out from under me,” he said.

“I used the satellite phone to call one of our friends who is a GP back home for advice and I guess in the back of our minds we always knew the bends was a possibility.

“Given how far away we were from anywhere and how long it would take to get help it was quite scary.”

The couple pulled anchor and sailed 20 hours to reach Buka, hopped a plane to Port Moresby and on 19 April arrived at The Townsville Hospital emergency department.

Doctors rushed Mr Verbiest to the hyperbaric medicine unit to administer a rarely used and aggressive treatment known as a Comex 30.

For director of hyperbaric medicine Dr Chris Jelliffe it was only the second time in his decade-long career at the unit at Townsville the technique has been used.

“This is the most aggressive treatment available to people with decompression sickness when we are concerned about an extremely severe neurological injury,” he said.

“It is a prolonged treatment of more than seven hours where we administer a 50-50 mix of oxygen and helium while replicating a diving depth of 30 metres.

“We use a high pressure of oxygen to remove nitrogen bubbles from the tissues but it is a risky treatment and not the sort of thing we do lightly.”

Mr Verbiest said when the treatment finished in the early hours of 20 April the impact was immediate.

“I went from having no sensation or movement when I went in to coming out with movement and sensation,” he said.

“I thought in my mind the leg was a goner and I was just trying to get it right in my mind that I’d done my last dive.”

For the past fortnight Mr Verbiest has done a ‘dive’ in the hyperbaric chamber every day along with intensive physiotherapy and his leg has steadily become stronger.

He no longer requires admission to hospital and is set to undergo his last treatment early next week.

Dr Jelliffe said it had been a remarkable recovery.

“I couldn’t be happier for him, he is a genuine guy and it is great that we’ve been able to get this outcome for him and Dineke, and their family back home,” he said.

“We are as confident as we can be at this stage that he’ll be able to leave Townsville with no change to his quality of life.”

The Townsville Hospital hyperbaric medicine unit treats about 12 patients routinely a day but are on call for emergency cases 24/7 for people with decompression sickness, carbon monoxide poisoning and acute hearing loss.

Last updated: 14 August 2018