The Drugs I Take to Dive

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by David Vickery

December 1989. An enormous winter storm in the southeast delayed our flight to Miami and we arrived too late to catch the connection to Grand Turk. After spending an anxious night in the Hotel Mia in the airport we finally made the 645-mile trek to JAGS McCartney International Airport. The storm had continued east and pounded the island overnight. The weather was overcast, rainy, and cool. We checked in with the dive shop and were told the dive boat had been torn from its mooring, flipped upside down on the shore and shattered. Wandering down to the beach we saw the engine block from the dive boat buried in the sand.

Next day dawned gray. Blue Water Divers filled a van with tanks and gear and we bumped down the road to a shore dive. Emerging from the water chilled, we stood in the wind whipped rain or hid under sodden towels while the staff humped everything back into the van. That afternoon and the following day it was rinse-and-repeat. On Tuesday a sullen sunset glimmered through breaking clouds and we hoped the rest of the week would be a real tropical experience.

Wednesday I awoke with a sinus headache. But the sun was out, Bluewater had borrowed a boat and we were finally going to get out to the offshore reefs. We did the morning and afternoon dives and miffed that Mother Nature had the impertinence to ruin our vacation, went out that night as well.

Thursday, I had a full-blown cold. I knew from my Open Water training two years earlier not to dive with a cold but after everything we had endured, I was not about to sit on the beach. Descending, I had to blow harder and harder to clear my ears. When the boat went out that afternoon my equilibrium was off, and I felt dizzy and chilled. Common sense finally prevailed, and I scrubbed the dive. Nevertheless, the next day found me in the water again although it took longer and longer to clear my ears.

My right ear ached, had a sensation of fullness, and was ringing. When I got back to New York, I checked in with an ENT and was told I had a micro-rupture of the ear drum. He prescribed an antibiotic as a precaution and Entex LA, a tablet combining phenylephrine hydrochloride and guaifenesin to loosen the blocking liquid and drain the ear canal. I was to stay out of the water for six months and check back with him before diving again. A non-diver, he also told me I had a narrow Eustachian tube and would likely require some form of pharmaceutical mucus thinning preparation every time I dove to enable my ears to clear.

The ringing in my right ear went on 24/7 with a harmonic sympathetic ring in the left ear. I continued to dive for several years using Entex and had no problems clearing and no unwanted side effects underwater. Potential side effects included anxiety, convulsions, depression, difficulty breathing, difficulty urinating in men with an enlarged prostate, hallucinations, headache, inability to sleep or difficulty sleeping, increased heartbeat, irritability, irritated stomach, nausea, nervousness, paleness, palpitations, restlessness, tremor, weakness, vomiting. Eventually I learned not to take it after 6:00 in the afternoon if I wanted to sleep that night, but other than that, no problem. No I wasn’t monitoring my BP or heart rate. I was too busy diving.

In 2000 the FDA took phenylephrine based products off the market (you can still get them overseas) and noted that doing so could save 200 to 500 strokes a year. But I still had a sinus condition, so I switched to Pseudoephedrine. Bad. The hyperbaric effects were stunning: extreme anxiety and tachycardia. That lasted one dive trip.

Back at the ENT’s, I said that like Huey Lewis, I wanted a new drug. He suggested I give up anything designed to dry up congestion and stick with loosening mucus and reducing swelling of the nasal passages and Eustachian tube. So for the last 18 years when I’m diving I take a Mucinex 12 hour tab in the morning and two whiffs of Fluticasone in each nostril. No problems clearing and no side effects that I’m aware of.

Fast forward to 2009 and at the tender age of 60 I am told to take 10 mg. of amlodipine every day for my blood pressure which was never really that high, never over 150/90, but one day you may need it as well, if you live long enough.

Six years later I herniated two disks in the lumbar area of my back. This had absolutely nothing to do with diving; I’d been playing mountain man at our weekend home, splitting wood, hauling rocks and lumber and eventually my back paid the price. Serial epidurals lessened the pain but eventually it comes back, and I’m now looking at a laminectomy and decompression (how appropriate). So the last time I went diving I took my amlodipine at night with a Mucinex, and in the morning the following:

  • Mucinex
  • Flonase
  • Aleve
  • Tylenol
  • A handful of supplements including Vitamins C, D, B12, Glucosamine, Ubiquinol, and a probiotic.
  • And if the Aleve isn’t working, between dives I lie on the floor and take 20 mg. of prednisone.

So there. The scolds in the tech, wreck, and cave world can now flame on, but hey, I’m an advanced Nitrox diver closing in on 900 dives and I’m still in the water.

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