On June 30, 1974, divers Ian Beaton and John Dimmer were being decompressed on board the Sedco 135F after making a short bounce dive to 490 feet, when, at about the 90‑foot level, Dimmer suddenly complained of shortness of breath.  He told his diving supervisor, Mike Spencer, that his chest felt like it was “full of air.”[1] Spencer followed procedure and recompressed Dimmer back down to 100 feet where his pain was completely relieved.  But when his symptoms continued to reoccur during a series of unsuccessful attempts to get him above 85 feet, a doctor with an alleged expertise in diving medicine was brought out to the rig.[2]  Strangely he failed to diagnose and prescribe the proper treatment even after diving expert Al Krasberg—a former Westinghouse engineer with a Master’s degree in Astrophysics from Harvard University and more than twenty years in the diving industry, including work on the American Sealab experiments of the 1960s[3]—correctly indicated to the doctor that Dimmer was suffering from a burst lung (pneumothorax).  

 

Believing instead that Dimmer had a case of pneumonia, the doctor prescribed antibiotics, a slower decompression schedule, and an increase in the oxygen level in the chamber atmosphere.  At this point Krasberg wondered what kind of diving doctor this was.  He seemed to be unable to draw a correlation between the incidence of pain and the reduction in pressure.[4]  Pneumonia was not susceptible to pressure differentials where as pneumothorax was.  He did not take Dimmer’s temperature, which might have produced some evidence to support his diagnosis of pneumonia.  And there was that curious order to raise the oxygen level.  As Krasberg would later explain at an official inquiry, “That seemed contrary to everything I knew.  He said oxygen was sometimes used for treating pneumonia in hospitals, but on the other hand in diving oxygen is known to cause pneumonia."[5]

As for diving Supervisor Mike Spencer, he was “shocked” by the doctor’s diagnosis and argued for a different course of action.[6]  Dimmer was currently at 85 feet and experiencing pain.  That pain had already proved to be relieved through recompression and Spencer wondered: why not recompress Dimmer, give him the relief he needed, hold him in storage, treat him with medications, then bring him out after the danger had passed?  That might take days, or even weeks, but Spencer was unconcerned about the time factor, and he advocated that the patient should be cured within the chamber rather than subject him to more decompression because, at this point, one thing was undeniably clear, it was the reduction of pressure that was causing Dimmer harm.[7]

 

But the doctor objected to this suggestion and said that if anything was detrimental to the patient’s condition it was to leave him in sat.  Therefore it was imperative that they “get him out of the chamber as soon as possible and get him into hospital to treat the pneumonia."[8]

 

In the meantime, the doctor decided not to remain with his patient.  Immediately after diagnosis he arranged for a helicopter to return him to Aberdeen, which was hours away.  But what if an emergency were to arise?  Both Spencer and Krasberg thought the doctor’s departure unwise and tried to persuade him to stay,[9] but he assured them that this was a routine case, that he had one very similar to it recently, and that he could be consulted by phone or called back from shore “if there were any complications,"[10] which there were.

 

As the decompression continued, a pronounced swelling developed on Dimmer’s chest.[11]  The doctor made the long journey back to the rig, entered the chamber, and found Dimmer “showing some disorientation and a degree of distress and restlessness.[12] Then, perhaps out of a sense of frustration, he administered one of the most pathetic examples of bedside manner ever bestowed upon an ailing patient.  According to Spencer, who overheard the conversation, the doctor put his stethoscope to Dimmer’s chest and gave his patient a lecture, telling the injured man “to pull himself together and just to generally play the white man, sort of thing."[13]

 

Still, with mounting evidence pointing to a classic case of pneumothorax, the doctor continued to stubbornly adhere to his original diagnosis of pneumonia.  He prescribed pain killers (Pethidine),[14] tranquilizers (Valium),[15] and sleeping pills (Mogadon),[16] an action that alarmed both Krasberg and Spencer, given that current literature on hyperbaric medicine advised not to give medications that could possibly mask a diver’s symptoms and prevent him from telling anyone what he was feeling.  Only later would it be revealed in court that the doctor had never attended any course on decompression or diving accidents.[17]

 

Finally, on the fifth day of decompression, the expanding gas in Dimmer’s chest collapsed his lungs.  At 0920 he was pronounced dead just 30 feet from the surface from complications due to a pneumothorax.  He was survived by a young wife and child.  A jury later found that his death was “caused by incorrect diagnosis and treatment by the doctor."[18]

-----

Excerpt from the book, Into the Lion's Mouth.

Endnotes:

1    Dimmer FAI (Fatal Accident Inquiry Transcript), p. 56.

2    Dimmer FAI, p. 32.

3    George F. Bond, Papa Topside: The Sealab Chronicles of Capt. George F. Bond, USN, p. 81.

4    Dimmer FAI, p. 102.

5    Dimmer FAI, p. 15.

6    Dimmer FAI, p. 132.

7    Dimmer FAI, p. 132-133.

8    Dimmer FAI, p. 133-134.

9    Dimmer FAI, p. 106, 135.

10    Dimmer FAI, p. 15.

11    Dimmer FAI, p. 144.

12    Dimmer FAI, p. 89.

13    Dimmer FAI, p. 135.

14    Dimmer FAI, p. 87.

15    Dimmer FAI, p. 20.

16    Dimmer FAI, p. 37, 145.

17    Dimmer FAI, p. 94.  Asked at the Fatal Accident Inquiry if he had ever attended any course on decompression or diving accidents, the doctor answered, “No. Four times I have been engaged when the courses were on.”

18    Dimmer FAI, p. 150.

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