By Douglas Ebersole, MD – Medical Director for RAID
I am a dive industry professional and a COVID-19 survivor. I am sharing my story in hopes of decreasing the fear these days in the diving community. In my “real job” as a cardiologist and while wearing my N95 mask a few weeks ago, I was exposed to a severely ill patient that subsequently tested positive for COVID-19. He ended up in the ICU for a few days, but did not require a ventilator. He was discharged home after a two-week hospital stay and is doing well.
I began having symptoms of fatigue, shaking chills, and fever to 102 degrees about 10 days after my exposure and tested positive for COVID-19. I had no shortness of breath, a normal oxygen saturation, and a normal chest x-ray. I was one of the fortunate ones with symptoms no worse than a bad case of the flu. After 10 days of quarantine at home, my symptoms resolved though my exercise tolerance was decreased. My usual exercise regimen is 30 minutes on a stair master and 30 minutes on an exercise bike 3-4 times per week, but after COVID-19 I fatigued doing minimal yard work.
As gyms are closed in Florida, I used my home rowing machine to get back into shape. After a week I was able to row 30 minutes per day without symptoms. As I have access to a treadmill and a pulse oximeter, I exercised on my office treadmill after work with good exercise tolerance and no decrease in my oxygen saturation. As a result, I plan to return to diving as soon as Florida opens up the marinas and state parks. I will start with shallow no-decompression diving and slowly build back up to decompression diving, cave diving, etc.
Recently, a report of six divers in Austria who had severe lung changes on CT scans several weeks after COVID-19 despite feeling well has been widely circulated on social media. While this is interesting and suggests further studies are needed, no firm conclusions can be drawn from such a small number of patients with such a short follow-up period. While we do not have enough data yet to make any firm conclusions about the effect of COVID-19 on divers or when infected divers can safely return to scuba diving, it is unlikely that it will be a “one size fits all” approach. For now, we should all be aware that while COVID-19 is usually a mild disease in young healthy individuals, others can become severely ill and even die despite having no underlying medical problems.
We should all follow CDC guidelines, practice social distancing, wear masks in public, etc. in an effort keep ourselves and others safe. If despite this, a diver contracts the virus, he or she should wait for resolution of symptoms, then increase their exercise as tolerated, and see a physician knowledgeable in diving medicine prior to returning to scuba diving. Finally, please get your diving information from organizations like Divers Alert Network, the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society, and the South Pacific Underwater Medical Society instead of from social media! Safe diving everyone!
Douglas Ebersole, MD is an interventional cardiologist at the Watson Clinic LLP in Lakeland, Florida and is the Director of the Structural Heart Program at Lakeland Regional Health. He has been diving since 1974 and is an avid recreational diver, technical diver, rebreather diver, and cave diver. He is also a recreational, technical, and rebreather instructor for several training agencies. Additionally, he is a cardiology consultant to Divers Alert Network, the medical director for RAID, and is on the Board of Advisors for IANTD and the Training Advisory Panel for TDI/SDI. In his spare time, he is the Florida Sales agent for KISS Rebreathers.