A Thin Thread

October 10, 2004

How delicate the thread is spun between life and death.

I have decided that the fish in the freezer will cook more tenderly in a casserole baked slowly in the oven. It is mid-September, 2004, on the island of Malekula, Vanuatu. This is the closest that I can recall later about the date. I have used the lovely elliptically shaped glass casserole dish to prepare the fish and it has been cooking for about 20 minutes when I decide to take it out to check the progress. The fish needs to cook a little longer so the tin foil cover goes back on and I grip the two sides with my hot mitts. On the way to the oven I lose my grip and the whole mess falls to the sole of the galley splattering broken glass and boiling hot milk and fish over my feet. I limp forward to the sink to find blood rolling off my right ankle. It is quite a deep cut and will have to be carefully tended over the next few weeks.

Four weeks later and 150miles to the north, we are spending some time in Luganville on the island of Espirito Santo. This is the second largest city in Vanuatu. We have come here to do some diving on the USS Coolidge and to buy our duty-free fuel for the trip north through the Solomons. The cut is healing nicely and is nearly closed and scarred.

The USS Coolidge was a pre-WWII luxury liner pressed into service as a troop transport ship early in 1942. In October of that year she was carrying 5,150 marines into Luganville when she errantly crossed some of the mines laid by the US forces to guard against Japanese invasion. It took two hours for her to sink – just enough time to offload her troops. She then rolled onto her port side and slid down the slopes into water 60’-150’ deep. Being so close to the shore and in relatively shallow waters, she has become a popular dive site over the years. Alan Powers has been diving on the wreck since the late 60’s and has developed a large group of dive masters doing shore dives with small groups of 1-3 divers at a time.

Sander dives but he has never been totally comfortable with the underwater environment. He had not been diving since late April of 2002 – more than two years – when we dove at Isla de Cocos with the hammerhead sharks. He remembers that dive with a mixture of fear and total delight. Perhaps it is this memory that makes him uneasy; but this is one dive that he does not want to miss.

The first dive on the Coolidge is an easy one along the promenade deck to see some shells, gun placements, gas masks and the toilets lining the deck. The two of us were diving with a young local fellow named Toame. Later we were to learn that Toame had just come back to duty after three days off. This was to serve him well later.

All seemed to go well during the first half of the dive. We had descended to a depth of 25 meters and had ascended to deck level in preparation to return for the decompression time-out. Sander seemed upset and signaled to Toame that he needed to surface. Toame has been trained to watch for signs of panic and attempted to calm Sander and discover the problem. Toame and Jane then watched the regulator fall from Sander’s mouth, and his limp body fall back towards the ship’s deck. This was the time for quick and decisive action. Toame filled Sander’s BCD with air and guided his limp and unconscious body to the water’s surface.

Without a time for decompression, the extra nitrogen built up in the diver’s system can later cause the “bends”, an extremely painful (and sometimes life-threatening) situation. Jane knew that the best action for her was to watch them ascend to the top and then join another dive group to finish the dive. It was probably one of the most difficult decisions she ever had to make. The dive and decompression period lasted another 25 minutes – an eternity of not knowing what was happening with Sander.

Later the whole story evolves. Sander had been suffering from a lack of air – the reason never satisfactorily recalled. Upon reaching the surface Toame quickly released and dropped Sander’s weight belt and mask. He started mouth to mouth breathing and waved his arms to attract attention on the shore. That “thin thread” brought a dive boat within 100 meters. This dive boat was carrying divers including several with rescue capabilities. It took less than 30 seconds from the time of surfacing for the divers to pull Sander aboard and start CPR. He resuscitated quickly and was given oxygen to breathe. The boat carried him back to their facilities where an ambulance was waiting. By the time the ambulance had him aboard and on their own oxygen, Jane was there to accompany him to the hospital. After a thorough check including an x-ray to look for water in the lungs, he was released and we were back aboard Satori.

Toame had been away from diving for three days and this was our first dive. None of us had had a chance for substantial amounts of nitrogen to be deposited in our bodies thus sparing both Sander and Toame the problems connected with the bends. Considering the odds of this timing and that of the dive boat, we had already been given more than our share of that “thin thread”.

We left Luganville early in October and were anchored off a nearby island, Aese. Our friends on Intercept had been here earlier and highly recommended a walk across the island to the windward side. Jane had thought about the wisdom of covering her cut with a band-aide even though it seemed nearly healed; however, in the end we left in rather a hurry and the band-aide was forgotten. There are some wild horses on this island and lots of piles of poop. The interior of the island is quite devoid of wind but heavily populated with flies who must flourish on these poop piles. Now we could lament the fact that we also had not brought insect repellent. What had we been thinking of?

That evening brought pains and aches to Jane that were easily eliminated with some pain killers. We were on our way north to our check-out position of Sola on the island of Vanua Leva. The sore that had seemed healed was inflamed again and seeping quite a bit. There was very little swelling so we felt that cleaning with hydrogen peroxide on a regular basis should take care of it.

We kept a regular radio schedule with our Aussie friends aboard Intercept. They had left Luganville and sailed west to New Caledonia. Tim reported that he needed to see a doctor as soon as they got to Noumea. A small cut on his leg, from a bramble encountered during their walk on Aese, had become infected and his leg was swollen to twice its normal size. Perhaps this was the cause of Jane’s inflammation as well!

The night before our arrival at Sola, Jane developed a terribly sore throat. The next morning she felt achy and very tired as we carried forth with our radio schedule. Tim had learned that his inflammation had been caused by the flies on his cut at Aese. The flies in Vanuatu, the Solomons and Papua/New Guinea carry a streptococcal bacteria that is very dangerous. Tim had been given a prescription of 2,000 mg of antibiotic each day to fight his infection. There were three other people on the quarantine dock at Noumea who had come from Vanuatu carrying the same type of infections!

It seemed quite obvious that Jane’s sore throat must be an indication that she had the same infection and that it had become systemic for her. It was urgent that we get to a clinic in Sola and see a doctor! We had a limited supply of Ampicilin aboard that was already two years past the usage date and the needed dosage was uncertain.

Although Sola is the regional capital, we were dismayed to learn that there is no clinic here! The closest clinic was all the way back in Luganville!

Again the “thin thread” reached out to us. The day that we arrived there were two yachts visiting Sola with nurses and medication aboard. If we had arrived even one day later, they would already have departed. The infection had taken less than three days to develop. Now after three days on 2,000 mg of antibiotics, Jane’s glands are still swollen but the infection is receding. Could we have made it back to Luganville in time?

After two close calls we could decide that our way of life is quite foolish. We could throw it all away and head back to a life in the USA. There we would have competent doctors close around us and wait for the next catastrophe.

We choose to do the opposite. We are happy with our traveling life. We feel that we are living life to its fullest right now. If our days are short and that “thin thread” should not be there the next time, we will have enjoyed every day to the fullest.

End of story…