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ISSUE 2 ARCHIVE - LOVE BEING A TENDER

London School Of Diving
I'd been angling for this for quite some time (ever since I did my first dry dive) with the kind of subtlety one might expect from the local crack dealer. Such casual, whispered statements as "that dry dive was great fun", "I'd really like the opportunity to do that kind of thing again; being in the chamber I mean", and "is there any chance I can become a tender?" were commonly bandied about the walls of our office until the Boss finally relented and gave the green light. As I remember, I even pretended to consider the pros and cons of this before dashing out of the office and reentering seconds later donned in fresh scrubs.

It was, of course, very quickly apparent that actually working in the chamber was going to be somewhat different from the whole recreational dry dive experience, with considerably less giggling hysterically at the sound of everyone's voice whilst narked into oblivion at 50 metres, and a good deal more making sure everything's working properly and looking after people.

The first thing to do every day is an extensive system of checks, ensuring all the pieces of the system are present and correct. The mechanisms behind all this, as is the case with your scuba gear, are actually very simple, and I'm sure everyone remembers when they learned how to dive, how phenomenally easy it was to set up your BCD and regs. Of course, if you do remember that, you should seek immediate psychiatric help because your memory is a compulsive liar. As a result, I spent most of my early days being shadowed by Ben, Matt or Mark, who patiently wait for me to remember which pipe exactly is connected to the air, oxygen or fire extinguishing system and whether this particular attachment is responsible for something going in or out of the chamber and whether the valve should be open or closed.

Fortunately, I started to pick this up before long (I said the concept was simple), which means we can move on to the fun stuff. Once we know everything's running properly it's time to climb into the vessel and batten down the hatches. Not everybody knows this, but chambers aren't just used for people with DCI. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is used for a wide range of medical ailments, from carbon monoxide poisoning through to severe traumatic injuries, due to its success rate at awakening cells left dormant from lack of oxygen. For my first few runs I join in with Matt on some HBOT treatments as they're generally shorter and the patients might have been in a few times. Since they know the procedure and have brought along a good book, this gives Matt time to bring me up to speed on what exactly we need to do whilst we're in there as I try to pretend neither of us has squeaky voices.

Since we need to avoid slipping into deco ourselves, at points we too need to suck on some oxygen, and it's here that I'm going to tackle the big debate: does O2 get you high or not? Influences as wide ranging as Fight Club and Michael Jackson have suggested that breathing pure oxygen is an excellent way to get off your face (insert Jacko joke here), whereas more sober evidence from techie divers and the like indicates it probably doesn't. Having found myself in the chamber during 6 hour DCI treatments at 4am, I am going to assert that oxygen doubtless makes you feel better and certainly wakes you up, but it doesn't leave you begging the boys outside to pipe in the Velvet Underground and Hendrix.

Obviously, being a tender is mostly about making sure the patient is happy and that you've got their tea, coffee or pizza order just right. This is also the best part of the job as depending on what the person wants to do, you've either got someone to make friends with for a few hours or you get to read a decent book (there's plenty of good reading material on hand, just in case you've accidentally brought a Dan Brown novel in with you). As a tender, it's very important to remember at this point that everything you say can be heard by those operating the chamber outside. You might, for instance, happen to mention to the patient that Ben's bike might not be as good as he claims it to be, in which case Ben's voice will quickly be heard over the radio, offering to add liberal quantities of salt to the tender's coffee.

Now that I'm fully trained, I discover, thankfully, that there's still a whole lot I can learn. As well as the whole other world of what exactly goes on outside the chamber whilst I'm in it, there are the many vagaries of the sometimes obscure nature of decompression sickness. This is a subject seemingly without limit. However much you think you know, there is always something new to learn by virtue of the fact that parts of the many theories still remain a mystery. Luckily, providing people are quick and educated enough to recognise it, we can cure it.

For me, the whole concept of the chamber is something I can't get enough of. Everything is nautical in there. Whilst you're down at 18 metres, you will be able to observe the outside world through the portholes, exactly the same as it was when you were at the surface; except it isn't the same. It looks close enough to touch but you're now separated from it by a couple of atmospheres. It's tangible only in the mind, and to me it's like taking a break from the world, as it's fairly unlikely the bank manager will come banging on the hull. Also, the seats are very comfortable, you get stuffed full of tea and coffee, and there's an unwritten rule that whoever actually made the dive that day doesn't have to empty the loo.
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