tampabay.com

Racing for life, 130 feet down

By RICK GERSHMAN
Published September 29, 2005


WEEKI WACHEE - Deep below an algae-covered pond, Eagle's Nest is considered one of the most breathtaking underwater cave systems in the world. Its intricacies have alternately been described as challenging and dangerous.

Judi Bedard never made it to the dangerous part.

Bedard, 48, a registered nurse at Tampa General Hospital, was pulled lifeless from the waters at Eagle's Nest on Sept. 11. She was resuscitated and remains in critical condition at a Gainesville hospital.

The state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Wednesday released its findings on what happened when Bedard and boyfriend Rudy Banks of Williston, both experienced cave divers, entered the water.

It was a standard recreational dive on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

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Shortly after 4:30 p.m., they began a fairly normal descent, said the 52-year-old Banks.

Divers must breathe different mixtures of gas at different depths, so Bedard breathed from a tank of pure oxygen until she had descended about 30 feet. Then she switched to nitrox, a combination of oxygen and nitrogen.

About 130 feet down, she switched to her primary tanks, which were supposed to contain a blend of oxygen, nitrogen and helium appropriate for that depth.

They didn't.

Banks realized something was wrong with Bedard, who switched back to her nitrox tank. The two began their ascent, according to witnesses' statements to the commission.

That is supposed to be a gradual process, since ascending too quickly can cause decompression sickness, also known as the bends. It also can cause a gas embolism, the presence of bubbles in the bloodstream that obstruct circulation.

But they didn't have that kind of time. An error in Bedard's tank mixtures left her breathing almost all helium and almost no oxygen.

At 100 feet, she was unconscious.

At 60 feet, she'd stopped breathing.

According to Bedard's friend and neighbor, Tom Lenfestey, Banks was left with a terrible choice: If he ascended rapidly, the trauma to Bedard's oxygen-starved body could be enormous. If he didn't, she certainly would die from a lack of oxygen during the gradual ascent.

Banks, too, risked decompression illness with an immediate ascent.

He brought her right up anyway.

"He knew (he might get) the bends, which is very painful, but you can deal with it," Lenfestey said. "He had to do that."

Unfortunately, "it was the ascent that began a kaleidoscope of challenges, and the injuries under which she now struggles," which included arterial gas embolisms, diving expert Gregg Stanton, who had just completed a dive with a buddy at Eagle's Nest, said in a statement to to the commission.

On the surface, Bedard had no pulse. Her eyes were open. Blood and foam poured from her mouth.

Banks got the attention of Stanton, formerly Florida State University's diving safety officer, and his diving buddy, James Garey, who serves on the University of South Florida's diving control board.

Garey flagged down Dan Pelland, a Spring Hill resident who happened to pull up to Eagle's Nest to shoot photographs. Garey used Pelland's phone to call 911, and Pelland helped Banks perform CPR on Bedard.

Stanton and Garey lauded Banks' actions to resuscitate Bedard, but Stanton noted that Eagle's Nest's remote location and unpaved entrance made any potential recovery far more problematic.

"That the victim was brought back to a self-breathing condition is a tribute to the rescue crew, and in particular to Mr. Banks," Stanton wrote. "His cool perseverance working with everyone brought results beyond expectations."

However, the medical response was "hampered by limited supplies and transport options," Stanton said.

"Taking the victim in on a backboard in (a sports utility vehicle) with no IV drip was surprising, but necessary, while the ambulance and helicopter waited at the edge of the forest. A good 30 minutes - probably more - could have been saved and better EMS care could have been available had a recovery plan been in place for the Eagle's Nest dive site."

* * *

Fish and Wildlife investigator Stephen Farmer agreed with Stanton and Garey that three elements contributed to Bedard becoming injured that day at Eagle's Nest:

--The gas was not properly mixed in her tri-mix tanks.

--The tanks were not properly analyzed to ensure the right proportions of gases.

--The isolation valve - an attachment to the manifold that connects the two tanks - was incorrectly left closed and never checked to ensure it was open.

Banks, who declined to speak with the Times, told investigators he mixed Bedard's tanks.

However, the experts said, that does not absolve Bedard of responsibility for her equipment.

"At the site - before the dive - I do not believe Ms. Bedard checked the contents of her breathing gas. Ultimately it is the responsibility of all divers to test their own breathing gases," Stanton wrote.

"Had she tested the isolation valve, she would have caught that the tanks were not evenly pressured ... and probably would have looked for further problems, leading to her canceling the dive. ... I conclude that she did not complete the safety drills as per the proper protocols."

Banks remains disconsolate after the accident, Lenfestey said, spending almost all of his time at the hospital, Shands at the University of Florida.

Doctors were surprised Bedard survived the first 24 hours following the dive, Lenfestey said. Her kidneys failed, and her heart stopped several times following her removal from a hyperbaric chamber to treat the embolisms.

It's a tough reality for friends and fellow divers who know Bedard as full of life.

"She's high entertainment, just great to be with," Lenfestey said. "She's full of, well, everything."