Andrew Nieuwenhof diving at Julian Rocks, Byron Bay.
Andrew Nieuwenhof diving at Julian Rocks, Byron Bay. Tom Hughes

Help was an agonising hour away: Diver's medical emergency

LIKE an addict deprived of his regular fix, my life without scuba diving has been a misery.

Much as I relished my weekend dives and the resultant nitrogen hits at Byron Bay's Julian Rocks, I didn't realise how hooked I'd become until I was forced to abstain as a result of suffering decompression sickness.

The withdrawal symptoms have been severe.

I deeply miss the highs I experienced on every dive, a Sunday morning ritual starting with preparations in the company of fellow dive junkies at Byron's Sundive Centre followed by the exhilarating boat ride 2.5km out to sea, often attended by resident dolphins year-round and by migrating humpbacks in winter.

Excitement rises as the boat moors just off the two solitary volcanic rocks jutting out of the ocean in the Cape Byron Marine Park.

This is where a mix of tropical and temperate waters brings together hundreds of species of marine creatures in an intoxicating assemblage of constantly changing colour and movement.

Donning dive gear, you wait expectantly for the all-clear to back roll from the boat into the ocean.

As you equalise while sinking slowly to the bottom, all cares and worries float way.

Welcome to my other world.

Marine life everywhere: from vibrantly-coloured small fish and nudibranchs to a large grey nurse shark approaching to within arm's length or a majestic manta ray with its horn-shaped cephalic fins gliding overhead.

A burly loggerhead turtle in the distance.

Is that Ted?

Adored by regulars but feared by some newcomers, Ted, barnacle-encrusted and mouth agape, barrels up to our group of divers and checks out each one individually, taste-testing a camera or other piece of equipment.

As you move around the rocks and its many nooks, crannies and trenches you're likely to see an octopus hiding under a ledge, a jet-propulsed cuttlefish, a lionfish emitting a warning with its venomous spikes and clownfish darting in and out of their protective anemone coral.

Suddenly you're in the midst of masses of trevally, schools of snapper, sweetlips or barracudas.

Out of nowhere, a huge bull-ray catches the corner of your eye or hundreds of cow rays skim by over the top.

At a dive-through cave called the Cod Hole, you can be engulfed in a swarm of fish, big and small.

Outside in the trenches in winter you may see a dozen or more grey nurse sharks slowly parading in single file along a sand trench.

In the warmer months at another popular site, the Needles you can spend most of the time in one spot observing large numbers of leopard sharks circling and twisting and turning in an awe-inspiring display of aerobatics.

Emerging from the water on a euphoric high, you're already craving your next hit.

But for the last six months I have been in medically-enforced rehab after undergoing surgery for a PFO (patent foraman ovale), an opening in the wall separating the two top chambers of the heart.

The condition was diagnosed after I suffered decompression sickness (the bends) during a holiday diving on East Timor's spectacular fringing reefs.

Surfacing after my fifth dive in two days, the usual feeling of ecstasy was replaced by dizziness and disorientation as I stumbled towards the shore.

An agonising one-hour minibus drive on a rough road from the remote dive site brought me back to the capital Dili.

A painful rash had spread over my stomach and up to my chest.

With the nearest hyperbaric chamber in Darwin, treatment in my dive centre room consisted of breathing pure oxygen while being monitored over the phone and internet by doctors from Divers Alert Network (DAN).

After 24 hours I began to improve, ready to fly home two days later.

Back home, tests revealed the PFO, a fairly common, usually benign, condition.

Most people with a PFO don't know they have it and will never need treatment.

In divers it can be problematic.

Venous gas bubbles formed under pressure may pass through the hole in the heart, bypassing the lungs and putting the diver at risk of the bends, or worse.

If I wanted to continue diving, I would need surgery to close the hole.

I didn't hesitate.

In a procedure that lasted not much longer than a regular dive at Julian Rocks, a catheter was used to guide the placement of a closure device through a large vein in the upper leg to the heart wall defect.

The device now remains in the heart permanently to stop the abnormal flow of blood - or bubbles - between the two atrial chambers.

The good news is that my dive-saving surgery was a success.

The bad news? I would have to wait six months for tissue to grow over the device before I could resume diving.

After an unbearable lapse, and having received medical clearance, I am now ready to resume my previous addictive behaviour. Julian Rocks, here I come.