Activity Report and Photos: Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber Volunteering

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Posted by Elaine on April 23, 2006 at 21:15:30:

Activity Report and Photos

Learning to be a Volunteer Crew Member at the Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber

Story and Photos © Elaine Jobin with a special contribution © Mark Tulin, may not be reproduced in part or whole without advanced written permission

I never planned to become a Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber Crew Member. One day, late in September, I received an an e-mail from Ross O. that said something like "Hi, Beth and I are attending the two day class to join the Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber Crew - do you want to come?" I thought about it for a few seconds, and, not entirely knowing what was involved said something like "Sure". It all happened in a "Tin Foil Hat" moment.

Elaine Jobin in a tin foil hat

Early in October, I filled out the registration form and went to the Mainland Chamber Crew Training Class at the Aquarium of the Pacific. I brought a copy of my C and CPR cards, a physician signed clearance for Hyperbaric exposure, and a $25 check. Karl Huggins, the Chamber Program Manager, presented two days worth of orientation lectures, and, a simple decompression problem homework assignment using a dive table that I'd never seen before (more on that later, Ross O. helped me with my homework). The following weekend, Ross, Beth, and I attended the Chamber Operations Class out at Catalina. We also signed up to do 5 weekends as "Crew Interns" together.

After the first two weekends, I wasn't sure that the Chamber Crew program was the right move for me. First, I had to consider that the required 30 days on the Island during the "Internship" year would mean fewer dive trips and less personal time. Next, I was exposed to massive amounts of new information and associated skills. Daily training runs are followed by a peer group review, and, skill mastery check lists that need to be signed by supervisors. I have a demanding full time "real job" and this was taking on a second demanding unpaid job. Lastly, I learned that I was expected to become comfortable using several different dive tables that I had never seen before (more on that later). It all added up to second thoughts.

I've stuck it out however, and now I'm about half way through the intensive first year. I thought that this "Chamber Day Season" might be a good time to share the experience with this activity report.

Some of the people who were in my Mainland Class have been out at the chamber for a week or more at a time. Several have been there so much, they have already completed their 30 days and become full crew members. Many, like myself must do it one weekend at a time, once or twice a month. What ever way you do it, after a while, the Wrigley USC campus starts to feel like a second home.

Catalina at the Hyperbaric Chamber, Photo by Elaine JobinThe USC Wrigley Campus, Photo by Elaine Jobin

There is an apartment in the dormitory complex for the Chamber Crew. I have the option to stay there, but if there is a vacant dorm room I will usually pay a small extra fee to get some space of my own, and then live in both places. The crew quarters consist of a simply furnished one bedroom apartment. There are two bunk style beds that can accommodate as many as 8 people. It doesn't matter where you stay, sooner or later you will experience a famous Wrigley ant attack. Spare time is often spent netsurfing, watching DVD's or Satellite TV, playing board and card games, spraying for ants, and cleaning up to keep the ants at bay. Crew members have brought a variety of comfort and cooking items from home for communal use. There are all sorts of kitchen appliances and an outdoor grill. I could eat in the campus dining hall for a small fee, but, I usually bring my own food from home. This is what the crew apartment looks like. Occasionally, I get some work done on my dive trip reports here.

Crew apartment living room, Photo by Elaine JobinCrew apartment kitchen, Photo by Elaine JobinCrew apartment dining room, Photo by Elaine JobinCrew apartment bunks, Photo by Elaine Jobin

Between training runs, I can also hike, kayak, or snorkel. I haven't done it yet, but sometimes Baywatch will offer boat rides. To SCUBA you must jump through hoops with the dive safety officer. I haven't done that yet either. Whatever you do, you must be able to drop everything and get to the chamber quickly if a dive accident occurs. I find that I'm always a little on edge when I'm "on crew" because at any time these guys could show up with work.

Baywatch at the USC dock, Photo by Elaine Jobin LA County helicopter at the Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber landing pad, Photo by Elaine Jobin

In reality, during the first 30 days, a lot of time is spent leaning the things that you need to know to function as a Crew Member. Every day there is at least one training run with the Chamber. Training runs are done under the watchful eyes of experienced Crew Members called "shadows" and a Supervisor. Each day can bring a new mix of volunteers so there is a lot of effort aimed toward getting everyone standardized into the same language and practices.

The Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber building, Photo by Elaine JobinThe Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber building, Photo by Elaine JobinCatalina Hyperbaric Chamber, Photo by Elaine Jobin

There are three crew positions that you must learn: Chamber Operator, Chamber Recorder, and Patient Tender. Each position has a checklist of start up and shut down procedures as well as a variety of skills that you need to practice until they are second nature.

The Chamber Operator is the person responsible for doing all of the things that make the chamber run. Checking and turning on gas cylinders, starting compressors, checking oil, draining condensation, and much more are all on the operators pre dive check list. The operator does everything required to get the chamber up and running and must be able to do it in less than 10 minutes. At Catalina, ascending, descending, and holding steady at depth are all done by this skilled human. One eye is kept on the controls and the gauges and the other on the chamber occupants for signs of any difficulty with pressurization. Just as on a real dive, an ear problem might require a quick stop and possibly a small ascent to clear. The operator also keeps the chamber occupants informed of what is going on and relays any necessary information or instructions. This may sound silly, but for me, learning the "Operator" position has been intimidating because I'm not used to turning big valves, and, pushing buttons that create loud noises when things turn on and off - I'm used to working with smaller, quieter things - to me, the Chamber is HUGE. I guess that I'm getting used to it though, recently I even caught myself listening for the "right" loud noises. As the operator you learn all about the equipment in these pictures and more.

Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber, Photo by Elaine JobinA Chamber Operator, Photo by Elaine JobinCatalina Hyperbaric Chamber, Photo by Elaine JobinCatalina Hyperbaric Chamber Compressors, Photo by Elaine JobinCatalina Hyperbaric Chamber Compressors, Photo by Elaine Jobin

The Chamber Recorder directs and documents the execution of the dive treatment plan. Carefully timing and documenting chamber movements, lock runs, oxygen and air periods, and who is at what depth for how long, are all part of the Recorders job. Chamber Crew, Baywatch, Doctors, etc. can enter and exit the chamber during a treatment via the lock. The recorder is the chamber "dive master" who uses all of the information, and all of the dive tables (more on that later), to reduce the possibility of a care giver getting bent. There is a lot to learn to do a good job at this position. With a flurry of chamber and lock activity, it can get confusing. On a few training runs I've felt my brain cells start to fry. With time, knowledge, study, and experience this position is supposed to get easier.

The Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber Recorders Desk, Photo by Elaine JobinThe Catalina Hyperbaric ChamberRecorders Desk, Photo by Elaine Jobin

The Patient Tender takes the treatment ride with the patient. You do what is needed to do to help the Baywatch paramedics, the physicians, and most importantly, the patient. I was a little worried about how I would do as a tender because some of the treatments go to 165 feet - I'd never been to 165 feet before and I know that on some days I get nitrogen narcosis in 75 feet of real water. Finally, one day, it was my turn to take the big ride. I learned that I think more slowly and that I don't learn new things as well at 165 feet. But....I did manage to get all of those little blocks in the right holes of the "shape box" and it was a confidence builder. I experienced the environmental changes that come with being in a pressurized gas environment. The air "felt" thick and when I spoke I sounded like a high pitched Donald Duck. I actually liked my time at 165 feet and all I can say now is "Hey, Karl, when do I get to go back?". All of the things in the photos, and more, need to be checked before a patient arrives. Besides getting to take a dive with the patient, one of the really fun things about being the tender is you don't have to worry about the dive tables (but, more on that later).

Inside the Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber, Photo by Elaine JobinInside the Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber, Photo by Elaine JobinInside the Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber, Photo by Elaine Jobin

I have met a lot of new people during my training days. I was there on Christmas Eve when we roasted Chestnuts on the grill. As we settled in to watch a movie, the power went out. We munched on Chestnuts by candlelight and reviewed how to operate the chamber on generator power. We fantasized about hanging a sign on the chamber door saying "sorry we missed you, please come again soon" and heading over to Two Harbors to find some egg nog. But instead, we were there and ready to treat a dive accident. Over time, there are so many shared experiences - friendships grow. Mark Tulin, one of the Supervisors who has been volunteering at the chamber for many many years, was kind enough to share this view of volunteering from his experienced eyes.

Chamber Day/Night Support the Day to Help Insure that the Chamber is there 24/7

By Mark Tulin

However, having the chamber without anyone to staff it would probably not do anyone, other than the chamber, much good. I am sure many of you have heard stories about our chamber treatments. And some of what others tell you may actually be true. But they're not there. They are not the hands involved in the actual treatment. We are. That's why I thought I'd introduce you to the human element in the Chamber treatment equation, the Chamber Crew.

The only thing the sixty odd (as in count and personality) men and women comprising the crew have in common is that we are all volunteers. Most of us are divers, yet some are not. Within our minions we encompass a full range of ages, beliefs, occupations, and opinions - especially opinions. Each person has his/her own reason for coming on crew. For many, it is a chance to give something back to diving. For others it is a chance to utilize their emergency training. A few joined after being involved in a dive accident. Whatever the reason, for at least twelve days a year, they show up in case they are needed.

Our home away from home during crew time is apartment 110, a one-bedroom/four bunk apartment just outside the back door to the cafeteria. The apartment is equipped with all the comforts of home, including satellite TV and DVD player. While treatments are our number one priority, aside from mandatory daily training runs, we are free to do as we please (hike, dive, swim), as long as we can make back to the chamber within 20 minutes in case of a call. Part of being on crew is accepting that you never know when you might have to drop what you're doing and report for a treatment or to assist the Baywatch Paramedics with a medivac.

Over time the crew does become its own version of a family, as joyously dysfunctional as it may be. We have shared a lot through the years - marriages (including crew members marrying crew members), divorces, joys, sorrows, births and deaths. We have a bond that can only come from shared experiences under some pretty trying circumstances. While there is the satisfaction that comes from knowing you helped an injured diver get better, crew time is not without its challenges. I have witnessed great acts of individual heroism as crew members step outside of their "comfort zone" to help others, such as doing CPR while rapidly descending to 165' in the chamber.

Ultimately, I believe every crew member would say they have received much more from the chamber crew experience than they have given. Too often in our "normal lives" there is not a direct causal relationship between our actions and an outcome. This is not so on chamber crew. If you are over eighteen and want to help us help make a difference, you are invited to come along for the ride.

Now that you know what I'm doing in my spare time and why there are fewer trip reports this year, I have a small favor to ask. Please don't ask me for dive accident details or information about anyone being treated at the chamber. When people are sick or injured, they have a right to privacy. When I signed up for this program, I signed a confidentiality agreement. What brings people to the hyperbaric chamber, who they are, how they are, etc. is information that stays at the chamber. As hard as it can be, wait for the official reports - don't pester your friends and acquaintances who you think "might know something". Instead, please try and realize that the chamber crew is out there because they care. If something has gone amiss in the diving community it affects the crew too. The crew needs a pat on the back and a warm hug, not 20 questions. What can you do to help a crew member feel less stressed? That's easy - at least in my case - get them out diving!

Now I need to quit writing and start work on the big dive table Recorder position homework assignment that I have to complete so that someday I can become a full crew member. It is one of the program requirements. I've been putting it off because, well, except for the ones located in the galley, I hate dive tables. It will take me several hours, if not days to do a good job, and the experience of working through it is supposed to make my future life as a Recorder much easier.

If any of this sounds like something that you might like to do - contact Karl Huggins and let him know.

I hope to see everyone on Chamber Day. I'll be out at the Chamber, experiencing the event from the "other side". Please dive safe!

Until next time.......

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