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Aug. 3, 1999 — Though scuba diving is one of St. Thomas’ most popular recreation activities with tourists and residents, the island will be without a decompression chamber for the next few months.
Roy L. Schneider Hospital’s decompression chamber will be closed temporarily while the staff that operates the often lifesaving piece of equipment is retrained to perform other functions, a RLSH administration spokesperson who asked not to be identified said Tuesday.
During that time, RLSH will send any injured divers requiring decompression to Puerto Rico at the hospital’s expense, the spokesperson said.
The decompression chamber does not require 24-hour staffing because RLSH only receives an average of two decompression cases per month, the spokesperson said.
Since some of the staff are trained only to operate the chamber, they will be retrained to perform other functions. The personnel will still operate the decompression chamber when needed, the spokesperson said: "We recognize the need and we’re going to address the need."
Decompression sickness, more commonly known as the bends, is caused when an excess amount of nitrogen becomes trapped in a diver’s bloodstream. When the diver returns to the surface, the gas bubbles will attempt to escape the body. If the condition isn’t treated, it can cause severe illness, embolisms and death.
Nitrogen always enters the bloodstream while scuba diving, but decompression sickness can have several causes, such as diving too deep, diving too long, returning to the surface too fast or being in poor physical condition.
The bends are treated in a decompression chamber, which slowly returns the diver to the pressures at the depth the diver dove to and then brings him or her "up" to the surface pressure again. Treatments can last several hours.
Though decompression accidents are rare, Bob Luff, manager of Underwater Safaris dive shop, said the closing of the chamber is somewhat concerning.
"One thing that has always set St. Thomas apart from other good dive sites is that is has a decompression chamber," Luff said. "And it’s a comfort to the dive industry and dive enthusiasts that there has been that extra level of safety of good and immediate access to a decompression chamber."
Decompression sickness still occurs despite enhanced training for students and instructors, improved equipment and more accurate dive tables that let divers know when and how long they should dive for, Luff said.
Divers with even the slightest signs of decompression sickness are advised to seek treatment in the chamber, he said.
"The training practices, dive tables and reliable equipment have made diving one of the safest sports there is, but I think we’re all a little anxious that the chamber is closed," he said. "Even when following all the procedures, there’s still a small — extremely small — risk."

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