It’s a good thing I’m not a claustrophobe, because when Freddie wheeled me into the HBO cylinder, it felt like I was being loaded in a torpedo tube. But the comparison ends there.
I arrived at the hyperbaric unit early enough for my nurse Freddy to acquaint me with the procedure. She pointed out my dressing room, where I’d strip and put on one of those annoying hospital gowns always impossible to tie. Then she checked my vitals (bp too high but pulse okay), checked my ears to see that no drums would rupture, asked me if I wanted to watch a movie. I made the mistake of saying no to the movie, thinking I could either nap a bit or simply explore thoughts while down. A mistake because I thought I’d be diving for 90 minutes (15 going down, an hour there, 15 coming back up, or at least that’s what my info from the Net told me). Wrong. She took me down slowly since I told her my left ear was hurting quite a bit, some 25 minutes. Then an hour and a half down plus an extra 10 minutes for two 5-minute air breaks, and then 15 decompressing for a grand total of two hours and twenty minutes. I began at 1:00 and was out at 3:20. And all that while without a movie. Now, I can dwell in my head better than most people, but that length of time felt like forty miles of bad road.
Back to the cylinder. I was lying on a well-padded surgical table, sheet over my legs, sippy cup in one hand, a bracelet on my right wrist that held an air line I was to use for five minutes twice during the dive. I was never told the purpose of the air breaks, only that I was to breathe only through the tube in my mouth, not through my nose. I’m guessing that the prolonged breathing of pure oxygen may not be good for the lungs. I’ll ask Freddie when I go in on Monday. The cylinder was heavy-duty plexiglass with a television attached to the top about three feet from my face. Freddie turned on the oxygen and I could hear it pumping in, slowly at first, then increasing in volume (both amount and noise) through my initial dive. Freddie communicated with me by phone, telling me what she was doing, asking me how I felt. Just as in a plane climbing from takeoff, I had to keep dropping my jaw to pop the drums. And in this first experience I had a problem with my left ear, feeling a building pain. But then I got it worked out and when I was at the double compression it felt all right.
Then my lengthy stay that first time. The noise of the pumping oxygen reminded me of the vuvuzela horns at the World Cup, but wasn’t nearly as annoying as the horns. And the sadists who designed the facility installed exactly one clock . . . way to the left and on the back wall. I had to nearly break my neck to see it. Everyone knows the feeling of being boxed in somewhere—no books, no magazines, no tv, not even any people to use for people-watching, no anything to occupy the mind. Time slows to a crawl, a glacial movement. I would wait as long as I could before craning my neck to see the clock. What should have been at least fifteen minutes was invariably five. Finally, finally, Freddie told me she was bringing me up. Oh, happy week. I had to keep popping my ears as I came up, with the left one popping and crackling just like when you take on water from a swim. And the pumping sounds receded and were finally shut off. And I was released.
Other than feeling a little dizzy, other than my ears continuing to pop, other than a slight loss of hearing, I felt all right. This is something I can live with, despite the commitment to nearly three hours a day, five days a week, for as many weeks as it takes to see some improvement in my wounds. And believe me, next time I’ll ask for a movie.