OCTOBER 15, 2008 — In the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Catalina Island, I lay lifeless with eyes closed on the water’s surface. Over the sound of the enormous waves brought on by the Santa Ana winds, I thought I heard Alex, my scuba diving buddy, yell, “Diver! Diver! Are you okay?” I didn’t respond. I faintly heard, “Stay calm. You’re going to be fine,” as he grabbed my arms and began dragging me out of the water and onto the beach. As my head touched the sand, I felt a wall of seawater crash over me. The water rushed into my nose and mouth, and I couldn’t breathe.
Then, I felt Alex punch me in the nose. Hard.
It felt like someone had dropped a bowling ball on my face. Dazed and totally bewildered, my brain tried to understand why my scuba diving buddy would punch me in the nose during a rescue.
“Dude, I am so sorry,” he said. As the initial shock of the pummeling subsided, I realized that a wave had knocked Alex over, and he had elbowed me in the face by mistake when he fell.
“You are the worst Rescue Diver ever,” I said, as my head pounded and snot ran down my face.
For the past five days, we had been attending Rescue Diver class, the last stop on the scuba-certification train before the coveted professional-level PADI Divemaster certification. On our first day, our instructors at Los Angeles-based Eco Dive Center guided us as we performed CPR under a dim streetlight in a public park. We practiced giving rescue breaths and performing chest compressions on mannequins. If anyone had seen us, they would have called the police immediately, assuming we were dealing drugs or trying to reenact the terrifying Flatliners.
When one of our instructors pretended to be unable to breathe, we practiced a full-blown emergency scenario. One of the first rules of emergency response is to stop victims from panicking, so we tried to keep him calm as we strapped him to a defibrillator. As we administered oxygen through a mask, I began chest compressions.
“Stand clear!” someone yelled, as the defibrillator administered a shock in an attempt to jump-start his heart.
“One, two, three, four…” I yelled as I continued chest compressions.
“Ow!” he yelled. I had forgotten that because he wasn’t a mannequin, I had to take it easy on him. I decided to take advantage of my mistake. “He’s alive!” I announced. We had “saved” our patient.
After our exciting patient-resuscitation in the park and a string of numbingly dry videos detailing emergency procedures, we found ourselves a few days later in full scuba gear in an Orange County swimming pool.
“I can’t breathe!” the instructor yelled at me. “Don’t worry,” I said. “You’re going to be okay,” trying to keep him calm. As I approached him, he started climbing on top of me to stay above the surface. Per our training, I immediately dropped below the surface, swam behind him, and inflated his BCD (the inflatable vest that helps scuba divers control their buoyancy) to keep him above water. Now unresponsive, the instructor lay unmoving in the water.
“Unresponsive diver!” I yelled. “Call for pizza! Call for pizza!” To avoid any real-life confusion at the pool, our teachers instructed us to call for “pizza” instead of “help” during drills.
Later, on the bottom of the swimming pool, we practiced out-of-air scenarios. I took my regulator (scuba breathing apparatus) out of my mouth and pretended to be out of air. I gave the out-of-air signal (a throat-cutting hand motion) and urgently approached my dive buddy to get his alternate air source. He shoved his emergency regulator into my mouth, and I took a deep breath. Suddenly, my mouth was filled with pool water. For some reason, the regulator wasn’t working. I couldn’t breathe, and I didn’t know what to do. Swim urgently to the surface? Grab my buddy’s primary regulator? Call for pizza? I realized I was in total panic mode. I calmed down, cleared the water out of the emergency regulator, and then tried to breathe again. It worked fine. But it took my own hysteria during a drill to really appreciate the horrible feeling of being a panicked diver.
On our last day of class, we took a boat out into the ocean, split into teams, and simulated real-life rescue situations, competing against the clock to get an unresponsive diver out of the water and attached to oxygen and a defibrillator. I am proud to say that my team was the first to beat the instructors’ three-minute water-to-defibrillator time limit. I didn’t even break a single rib doing chest compressions.
After our final drill, I floated in the water. I heard a voice behind me.
“Stay calm!” yelled my dive buddy, Alex. I turned around. “Don’t worry, I’m going to cut you free! You have been entangled in a kelp forest.” I looked down at my arm and saw a small piece of kelp on it.
“Thanks for saving me,” I said. “Are you going to punch me in the nose now?”
He didn’t. Then, we called for pizza.