Toronto

Nearly fatal diving accident prompts calls for changes to treatment protocols

What was supposed to be a mini vacation for a Detroit couple to explore some of the world's best freshwater scuba diving sites in Tobermory, Ont., turned into a near-death experience followed by months of rehabilitation.

Denise Phelps nearly died of decompression sickness in Tobermory

David and Denise Phelps had about 150 dives combined when she was injured in an accident in Tobermory, Ontario. (David and Denise Phelps )

What was supposed to be a mini vacation for a Detroit couple to explore some of the world's best freshwater scuba diving sites in Tobermory, Ont., turned into a near-death experience followed by months of rehabilitation.

In September 2016, Denise and David Phelps were diving at a shipwreck in Georgian Bay. After 30 minutes underwater, she signaled that she wanted to ascend. Then about 10 metres from the surface, her husband says she started to panic.

"She clawed her way past me and shot to the surface. I made an emergency ascent and followed her, and when I got to the surface she was unconscious," Phelps told CBC Toronto.  

There are more than 20 historical shipwrecks at the Fathom Five National Marine Park in Tobermory, Ont. Niagara II, pictured here, is where Denise Phelps had her accident. (Divers Den )

The coast guard arrived and Phelps began administering CPR. When they got to shore, Denise Phelps was loaded into an ambulance while David went in a private car.

In the 1970s, tourism in Tobermory spiked and the province built a hyperbaric chamber used to treat divers with decompression sickness — air bubbles that block blood flow in the arteries. David Phelps drove to the hyperbaric facility, but the ambulance didn't.

"When the ambulance kept going straight down the highway, there was a sinking feeling," he said. "Being a diver for quite some time, I knew the ramifications of [Denise's] injury."

'If we didn't get her back under pressure, she was facing death'

Dr. George Harpur, who was waiting outside the clinic as the ambulance sped past, says the protocol for treating injured divers had changed, and paramedics were now required to take them to a hospital 50 kilometres away.

"They were taking [her] somewhere she couldn't be treated ... We knew if we didn't get her back under pressure, she was facing death or severe disability," said Harpur.

Harpur got on the phone and says he argued with the paramedics. It took 40 minutes to turn the ambulance around and get it back to the clinic.

Denise arrived unresponsive and was put into the decompression chamber for hours, before being transferred to Toronto. Her injuries were extensive. She had ruptured both of her lungs, had five arterial gas embolisms — the most severe form of decompression sickness — and had gone into full cardiac arrest.   

If you shut off circulation to parts of the brain, brain cells start dying within seconds.- Dr. George Harpur

Since 2016, there have been three more serious diving accidents in Tobermory, and Harpur has spent  "crucial minutes" trying to persuade paramedics to come to the clinic, instead of going to the hospital in Lion's Head.

"Every minute counts," said Harpur. "If you shut off circulation to parts of the brain, brain cells start dying within seconds. And the longer it stays off the greater the damage is."

Denise Phelps sits with Dr. George Harpur outside the decompression chamber she was treated in. (David Phelps )

Each season, thousands of divers from all over the world descend on Tobermory to explore one of the 20 diving sites. Kelly Marcotte organizes many of these excursions.

She owns Divers Den, the only diving company based in Tobermory. Although she says accidents requiring the decompression chamber are rare, they do happen.

"It's nerve racking for us to think that a diver may not be allowed to go to the hyperbaric facility and be given the best care possible ... The protocols that we have in place with the coast guard and Dr. Harpur are not being considered by ambulance services," said Marcotte.

Doctor not given reason for change in protocol 

Harpur was recruited in the 1970s by the province to run the chamber. He's asked several times why the protocol for treating injured divers has suddenly changed. But he says the government, hospital staff and EMS haven't been able to give him a reason.

The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care wouldn't tell CBC Toronto when the protocol changed or why, but in an email response staff said the ministry is working with different branches of Bruce County's health services "to develop a solution that will ensure diving accident patients get the care they need as fast as possible."

Harpur says he's heard similar responses and is urging the province to reverse the change. 

Denise and David Phelps were married last September in Tobermory on the second anniversary of Denise's accident. (David and Denise Phelps )

Married near the site of accident 

"I'm hardly going to stand by mute when something is happening that I know has the potential to cause serious injury or death," said Harpur.

After several months of intense therapy, learning how to walk and talk again, Denise Phelps says she's now "90 per cent better," but still has issues with her short term memory and doesn't remember anything about the accident.

Last month, on the two year anniversary of the incident, the couple got married on the Tobermory shoreline instead of at home. Both of them say, they wanted to be around the people who saved her life.

"There are people that helped me so much there and we wanted them to be a part of it," she said.

About the Author

Natalie Nanowski

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Natalie is a storyteller who spent the last few years in Montreal covering everything from politics to corruption and student protests. Now that she’s back in her hometown of Toronto, she is eagerly rediscovering what makes this city tick, and has a personal interest in real estate and investigative journalism. When she’s not reporting you can find her at a yoga studio or exploring Queen St. Contact Natalie: natalie.nanowski@cbc.ca

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