A Travel Story: A Medical Evacuation for the Bends in Belize

April 1, 2022

Categories: Health, Member Testimonials, Safety,

When a member developed the skin bends — a version of the decompression sickness known as “the bends” — during a diving trip to Belize, Global Rescue medical operations moved quickly to get her the medical evacuation she needed. Here’s her adventure travel story from start to finish.


Scuba diving opens the undersea world to certified divers and Belize is one of the most sought-after destinations for an underwater adventure. When Texas resident Kristin Stanford and her husband visited Belize, they planned several dives in the Turneffe Atoll.

Stanford was scuba-certified three years ago and made successful dives in The Grenadines and Cancun, Mexico.

“We chartered with reputable dive operators in both cases and had our divemasters to guide our dives,” she said.

Diving With Sharks

Stanford was eager and anxious about her trip to Belize.

The atoll’s western side features shallow reefs perfect for novices and casual divers, according to Dive the World. The southern and eastern regions of the atoll are suited for seasoned divers and highlight shipwrecks, drop-offs and channels. It is home to an amazing range of sea turtles, manatees, crocodiles, sharks and rays making it a priority destination for veteran scuba divers.

“We had read that the shark population was on the rise as the fishing of sharks had been banned in the last couple of years. I was nervous but excited at the same time,” she said.

No Activity Restrictions to Competitive Analysis

The couple dove four different sites including; Permits Paradise, Three Amigos, Bull Dog and Lefty’s Ledge. The duo saw interesting and beautiful aquatic life, such as the Green Turtle, Spotted Eagle Ray, Reef Shark, Porcupine Puffer Cubera Snapper, Banded Coral Shrimps, Garden Eels, a large school of Yellow Tail Snapper, Spiney Lobster, Rainbow Parrot Fish, Spotted Moray Eels and Channel Clinging Crabs.

Things Gradually Go Wrong

On Stanford’s first dive she had trouble with a brand-new buoyancy control device (BCD) — a vest-like device that lets you adjust your floatation allowing you to remain  on the surface comfortably, kneel or stand on the bottom or drift along effortlessly mid-water, observing the scenery.

“I had trouble with maintaining buoyancy. I was unable to complete the three-minute safety stop before popping up to the surface. I did not feel any effects at the time and indicated to the boat captain that I felt fine,” she said.

[Related Reading:
Best Cave Diving Trips and Safety Tips]

Stanford went on a second dive without trouble. When the dive was finished, she and her husband returned to the resort. Unfortunately, within an hour, Stanford experienced severe itching and a burning sensation on her abdomen and the left side of her stomach. Later, a dull, aching pain started on the outsides of her thighs.

“I chalked it up to knocking about with a dive tank on my back and getting in and out of the boat in moving currents,” she said.

“I had put a seasickness patch behind my ear that morning. My husband and I attributed most of my condition to an allergic reaction to that patch. So, I removed it and continued with my day.”

The next morning, Stanford felt well enough to go on the two dives scheduled for that day. She didn’t experience any new symptoms. However, once she returned to the resort, the divemaster and resort manager visited her and asked about her condition.

“The divemaster had concerns about my dive experiences and my well-being. I explained the burning sensation in my abdomen and showed them the rash on my side,” she said.

an-example-of-skin-bends

Stanford saw their reaction and knew something wasn’t right.

“I had never heard of skin bends before and did not know that it was a sign of decompression sickness. That is when things kicked into gear, and we called Global Rescue,” she said.

Skin bends — cutis marmorata — show up as a rash that spreads irregularly and deepens in color to become mottled, cyanotic patches. Global Rescue medical operations moved quickly. Following a consultation with the treating physician, Global Rescue ordered a medical evacuation rescue flight to transport Stanford to a medical appropriate facility with a hyperbaric chamber and specialist doctor in San Pedro, Belize.

Treating the bends is not easy. Elevation changes alter the pressure on your body and dangerously aggravate decompression sickness. “If I had not gone that very night, we would have also had to delay our departure for home due to the length of time one must have between final treatment and flying commercial above 1,000 feet,” she said.

Glad to Have Global Rescue

Stanford knew she had no time to waste once the treating team confirmed decompression sickness. “It is a scary thought of what more could have happened with my condition if I had delayed treatment much longer. Bends can present itself neurologically if gone untreated,” she said.

Stanford underwent decompression treatment and fully recovered before returning home.

Stanford has been a Global Rescue member since 2019. “My husband read about Global Rescue in The Wall Street Journal. He had taken a trip to Thailand the year before, where he became certified to scuba dive. He thought it would be a great idea to have this type of protection for medical emergencies,” she said.

The couple was impressed with the quick and professional response by Global Rescue.

“The good communication with Global Rescue assured me they were on top of managing the operation and my treatment,” she said.

Fully recovered, Stanford says when her experience inevitably comes up in conversation with her friends and family, she would vouch for Global Rescue membership without hesitation. “We would recommend Global Rescue to travelers. Global Rescue has repeatedly checked on my well-being after returning home from Belize. Great and caring service which is much appreciated,” she said.

Whether you’re open water scuba diving, snorkeling or free diving remember to plan, prepare and get a Global Rescue membership. Unlike other providers, Global Rescue memberships do not exclude or restrict adventure activities — like cave diving, open water scuba diving, snorkeling or free diving — from membership. We don’t exclude any activity whether it’s skydiving, BASE jumping, heli-skiing or anything else. It’s part of our No Restrictions approach to travel, and that includes COVID-19, too.


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