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June 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 27, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Palau’s Chamber is Working Again, But Not Full-Time

from the June, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

What's the deal with Palau's hyperbaric chamber, reader Bob Kuhn (Palatine, IL) asked us. "I was at Palau recently and heard the chamber there has not worked in some time. Why? There are hundreds of divers coming here, but they have to go to Guam. I asked two divemasters at Sam's Tours and got two totally different answers. The first was that no one is trained, it's all private funding, and the dive shops don't communicate and work together well. The second was that there are actually two chambers, but one is broken and the doctor does not know how to operate the other one. My wife also sent an email to the hospital's information email address listed on Sam's website three days ago without a reply from the hospital. What's the real reason for a major dive destination not to have a working chamber?"

We contacted Sam's Tours and Fish n' Fins to find out what was happening. While Fish n' Fins never got back to us, Sam's Tours' managing director Dermot Keane did. He had just returned from a Memorial Day meeting arranged by the Palau Visitors Authority with medical staff at Belau National Hospital (BNH), where the three-yearold chamber is located. Here's what he wrote:

"The hyperbaric chamber at BNH is and has been fully functional since installation. There are physicians and staff at BNH with training in hyperbaric medicine, chamber operations and chamber tending, though perhaps more staff are needed. The reason hyperbaric treatment was not available last week to treat a suspected decompression sickness case was the unavailability of a full team of qualified chamber tenders/operators to support the attending physician in administering hyperbaric treatment. (The patient was treated with oxygen therapy and intravenous fluids while under evaluation and, following further examination, was determined not to have suffered DCS.)

"As of May 29, 2012, there is a physician and a full staff of qualified chamber operators/tenders on hand to provide hyperbaric chamber treatment, if needed, to a hospital patient under evaluation for DCS. The solution now in place is a short-term measure to restore availability of chamber treatment on an emergency-call basis only, as opposed to 24/7 standby. In the meantime, multilateral efforts involving dive centers, hospital administration, Palau Visitors Authority and Belau Tourism Association are underway to promptly produce solutions for a return to the previous full-service levels."

Keane says that there are only two suspected, but not official, DCS cases this year, and no cases last year. (The most recent annual high was four DCS patients in 2009.) Still, we hope the full-service level returns quickly. As you'll read in our story "Those Deadly Downcurrents," Palau has some tricky dive sites that can put divers in risky situations where they may need chamber access immediately, rather than the once-a-day, two-hour flight to Guam.

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