Body Worry : Rule-Breaker's Intimations of Mortality

My new svelte physique, unveiled last week, had tempted me into working hard on my tan and dreaming a bit about my future Soloflex body. Then, not long ago, on a bright, blue-skied Bahamian day, an incident made me confront the real substance of my year--and my life, too.

Scuba diving has always been the best tranquilizer for me. Under normal circumstances a diver has nothing to worry about, and after thousands of dives in 15 years, breathing underwater is as natural for me as breathing on land. Therefore, on a recent 75-foot dive, my mind was on fish and coral canyons and caves.

At the end of every dive with the Underwater Explorers Society, all divers--including the most experienced--make a carefully controlled ascent using a line dropped from the boat to properly compensate for decreasing water pressure.

This time, however, I decided to practice an emergency free ascent--a maneuver taught in almost all certification courses back when I trained, but now known to be dangerous and no longer recommended. Still, I had done it before without any consequences.

So I dropped my regulator to my side, raced to the surface--nearly eight stories above me--with my head tilted back so expanding air could flow freely from my mouth, and broke through the surface with the practiced aplomb of a dolphin.

A Rare Occurrence

At some point during the ascent an air bubble must have entered my blood stream. A very rare occurrence.

As I climbed aboard the Explorer I, I felt great. For about a minute. And then the pain began--in my back, directly under my right clavicle. I began to sweat. I first attributed it to a muscle pull. But as we neared port, the pain began to move. I remember feeling very alone at that moment. Muscle pulls don't move.

As the boat pulled up to the dock, my symptoms were beginning to resemble a heart attack. Pain under my rib cage. Lightheadedness. Spotty vision.

I walked from the boat quickly, up a 10-foot gangplank, and stood alone by a bank of scuba tanks, confused and--for the first time--really afraid. An overwhelming feeling of doom settled on me.

At that moment, Mike Sahlen, an underwater photography expert, walked by with two empty scuba tanks.

"Mike, don't say anything yet, please, but something's really wrong with me," I said.

When it comes to diving accidents, even potential emergencies must be handled quickly and expertly. The Underwater Explorers Society staff moved with speed. Within two or three minutes they had noted my symptoms and taken initial steps; a moment later the society's president, John Englander, hung up from a call to Dick Clark, one of the world's authorities on diving accidents.

Calm, Quick Teamwork

"Bubs," he said, "we need to take you down to 165 feet." This depth is normally used only for embolisms (air in the blood, blockages of the brain . . . things that can kill you), so I was appreciative of the calm, quick teamwork that soon had me in the recompression chamber.

A recompression chamber is the most important, and at times only, lifesaving treatment for diving accidents. A chamber recompresses the air around you, taking your body and its gases back to pressures similar to the depths of the ocean, pressures that squash things--like air bubbles traveling in the bloodstream--until they disappear.

The chamber looks like an iron lung. Made of steel, its interior is 4 feet 10 inches by 8 feet 6 inches. It has two locks, one bed that looks like an ambulance stretcher, a telephone and two small portholes. There is nothing electric inside it. Nothing flammable. No paper. No loose metals. Because of the great pressures created in chambers, the oxygen in the air is concentrated and can flame up. No one has ever survived a recompression-chamber fire.

I spent six hours with Kurt Alcorn, the instructor monitoring me, in that very close space. I was wearing an oxygen mask most of the time and could not talk. But I thought a lot.

An unthinking decision had put my life in jeopardy. Because of that decision, my life was literally taken out of my control. The four people just inches away turning levers and controlling oxygen and air flow ruled my life more completely than any jailer ruled a prisoner's life. And though I trusted the people running that chamber, I couldn't help wondering what would happen if an exhaust valve ruptured. Explosive decompressions turn people into spaghetti.

But then, as the pain left me, as the air bubble in my bloodstream was crushed by the great pressure in the chamber, my mind went back to the sense of doom that had overcome me only minutes before as I stood on the dock. That moment defined "regret" for me in a way I cannot explain to you. What was happening to me had been in my control, and I had botched it.

A Second Chance

How many times had I made emergency ascents, ignoring the fact they were dangerous? Why did I think the rules didn't apply to me? Because of the chamber and a well-trained staff, I was given a second chance to correct a needless risk. From that day on Remar Sutton would rise to the surface with the lazy pace of a sea slug.

At 5:30 I crawled out of the chamber--tired, somewhat sore and feeling very mortal.

My diving incident gave me an opportunity to think about the elements of risk I confront in my own life, particularly concerning my health. It reminded me in no uncertain terms about how many of those elements are under my control.

Until this year my concerns about health were as immediate as my concern about an embolism. Rules of cause and effect didn't apply to me. Let me assure you that a confrontation with death reminds you they do.

To a large extent your food habits determine your health. If you kept a food record during the last week, look at it and ask yourself, How often did I eat fried or fatty foods like fried eggs, hamburgers, creamed dishes, mayonnaise, whole milk? If you regularly eat these foods, you are creating health problems for your future with cholesterol and saturated fat.

You can start beginning life style changes now. Buy leaner cuts of meat. Treat them as side dishes rather than main courses. Eat more fish and skinless chicken. Gradually change from whole milk to skim milk by progressing down to 2%, then 1%. Eat fewer eggs, and when you eat them, discard half the yolks. Switch to diet mayonnaise, or better yet, try mustards instead. Bake foods instead of frying.

Recognizing your eating patterns is the first step to healthy eating.

Progress Report

Beginning 16th Week Waist: 43 inches 33 3/4 inches Right biceps: 12 3/4 inches 12 inches Flexed: 13 inches 13 inches Weight: 201 pounds 168 pounds Height: 6-feet-1 Blood pressure: 128/68 126/68 Pulse: 64 66 Bench press: 55 120 Hunk factor: .00 .32

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