Hyperbaric Chamber Comes
to Utila

In 1993, When Jim, I and our children moved to Utila we had visited here ahead of time so we were aware of the community clinic limitations.  So when packing to go to Utila we also packed up our oxygen tanks and shipped them down with all of our other things we deemed necessary for life in Utila.

We had a dive shop in North Dakota for 10+ years and were very familiar with diving and the risks involved so wanted to be prepared for any dive accidents that happened once we were there.  Jim was very familiar with DCS and how to treat it.

It wasn’t long after moving there that the other shops realized that we not only kept oxygen on-site but that we knew how to identify if a diver was bent. And more importantly, what to do with them.  Mind you…. None of these bent patients were diving with us, they were always from somewhere up the road.


These surprise-patient drop offs forced us to create protocols to deal with them.

  • Assess patient
  • Call DAN (Divers Alert Network) who, once we started calling them, ended up assisting us in every case we had via telephone.  They would help to determine if patient needed to be sent to Roatan to the Hyperbaric Chamber.
  • Ready the Sea Sprite
  • Ready the crew
  • Sea Sprite takes patient to Roatan

There also was no-one else that had a big enough boat to take a patient to Roatan in the middle of the night.  This seemed to be when most of the trips would occur.  I guess this was a blessing because then it didn’t interfere with our resort diving.  The Sea Sprite would be back in time to take them on their dives by 8am.  It did, however, wreak havoc on the people who worked for us.  They would get no break from the all-night trip to then taking the guests out. I would mention that Captain Willie Senior was one of the best… always there to drive the boat when needed  (no one ever paid for that boat trip).

The nearest Hyperbaric Chamber was 25 miles across open ocean on Roatan.  Eventually this trip was to become a nightmare for everyone involved.  At times the crossing would take 5 hours + due to the 10-foot seas.  Thus, putting everyone in danger.  At times, it was so rough that the captain would be thrown from the tower, the patient bouncing all over inside, trying to keep dry in torrential pouring rain. Jim trying to keep the patient steady to keep the IV in place.  Patient getting seasick in addition to all the other symptoms, possibility of boat hitting a log and sinking.  Basically, a disaster waiting to happen.

Unbeknownst to us, this would be the pivotal point for us attaining a Chamber for Utila.  It wasn’t long after moving there that we would end up with people dropped off at our dock.  Bent.  No warning, just dropped off and left for us to deal with.  This went on for months/years- only getting worse and worse.

Our medical facility was a mere tiny bodega room that had a bench that the patient laid on, a home-made backboard made out of plywood, a huge customized first aid kit with a little bit of everything in it.   It too grew over the months.  Soon added to the list of “tools” (after all it was a tool bodega before), was a blood pressure monitoring kit and all the fixings for administering an IV.

The clinic hours were only 8am to noon, weekdays only. Our little trauma room was to see many, many patients with all sorts of ailments.  Never once was a patient turned away.

Jim and the rest of the staff were wonderful with these emergencies and were always there willing to help those in need.   However, as the stay at home person, worrying about my team, I began to look for opportunities to skip the boat trip to Roatan.  Of course, at this time the details of how, who, etc. didn’t even cross my mind.  I just wanted to eliminate the dangerous ocean trips.

So in 1994 began my quest for a Hyperbaric Chamber for Utila. It took only a year to realize the dangers of the nighttime crossing during stormy months etc.  This of course was pre-Google so searching for a Chamber was tedious.  Lots of phone calls and talking to everyone that came through our facility.  No luck.

Whale Shark Charter

One day we got a call from the crew of a yacht that was planning a trip to Utila to see a whale shark.  They were asking for the coordinates of where and how they might find a whale shark while in the area.  Jim took that call and was very helpful with the information that we had gathered/learned by this time.  It wasn’t long after when a huge yacht pulled into the harbor of Utila. The purser and a couple others from the crew came in on the dingy… well – not a dingy but a huge yacht version of a dingy.  Asking to speak with Jim, they identified themselves as the people who called previously and would appreciate any assistance we could give them in steering them to where they might search for the whale shark.  They would be searching with their speedboat in addition to the helicopter that was riding atop of the yacht.  Unfortunately, in the days that they were there, they were unable to locate any whale sharks

Perhaps a few months later, the crew of the yacht called Jim again and asked if they could please charter our boat and crew to take their boss out this time.  Jim said of course we would do that and did. Thankfully our crew got them a whale shark that day!   Interestingly enough the ‘boss’ also rented a room at Utila Lodge and ate with us too.  We were enjoying a late dinner one night when alas a boat headed to our dock.  By now we were on our after-dinner drinks and laughing and telling stories.  Jim says, ‘Damn I sure hope that’s not another bent diver!’  Thankfully it wasn’t, however it turned the conversation to what happens when we get bent divers on Utila. We explained the process of getting them to Roatan’s Hyperbaric Chamber as we drank and laughed.  Out of the blue, Mr. Flynn says, “Well you know, I’ve been thinking about replacing the one I have on my boat.  It’s a portable Chamber but would you guys want that?  My yacht has to go to France and won’t be back to Miami for six months before we could take it off.  If you’re interested we could take it off then and ship it down. Monetary wise, all I will need from you is a receipt that allows me to write it off my taxes.”

By now we have had so many people say so many things and promise this and that and never come through that Jim and I looked at each other and had the same thought… ya right.   About six months went by and we didn’t give this another thought after the yacht left the harbor.  Then one day as I was sitting in my office the staff downstairs buzzed me on the phone and say that there’s some guy from the states calling for Jim.

Jim wasn’t here so he asked to speak with me.  I answered the phone to hear   “Kisty, this is the purser off the Battered Bull.  Mr. Donald Flynn asked me to call you to see if you guys still wanted his portable Hyperbaric Chamber”.

It took me all of 2 seconds to tell him we sure did.  “What do we need to do to get it?”, I asked.  He explained that to get it off the boat, they would have to take it all apart and ship it down in pieces.  We would need to figure out how to ship it and then how to set it back up again.

So, began the search of WHO and HOW.

We did research while the Chamber was being readied of how to ship it down, and research on who we needed to come set it up.  Obviously, no one on our team knew anything about Chambers back then. Fortunately, it would not arrive to Utila for approximately 2 months.  Our team had lots to do!

We HadTo

Fly the technicians in from Italy to put the Chamber together.

Train a team to operate it.

Find a US entity that would write a tax-deductible receipt for it. (ENTER DANA)

Find a spot to house it.

While I left Jim to the task of finding a home for the Chamber, I proceeded to hunt down a receipt writer.  The silver lining that came from Hurricane Mitch in 1998 was that we bonded with an incredible group out of Beaumont Texas.  They just arrived the night before the storm hit and decided to wait to the following day to evacuate.  Unfortunately, by the next day the weather was so bad already that there were no flights and no boats.  Nobody was going anywhere.

Because of this time spent together, a lot of friendships grew.  One being with Dana Timeaus.  Dana was very active in his church in Beaumont and he, being a diver, saw the necessity of getting that Chamber to Utila.   So, he talked to the heads of the church and they agreed that they would write the receipt for Mr. Flynn.

However, the church needed to then donate it to someone so as not to be held liable if someone were to get hurt in it.  We talked about how best to do this.  I pointed out that if Jim and I were not in control of it, it could end up like the ambulance that I spent hours upon hours getting donated to the island. Sadly, it did not carry one patient.  It ended up in a political war, and basically sat up on the hill and rusted away to nothing.  I was very hesitant to leave any possibility for this to happen again so we decided that the Chamber would be donated directly to Jim and myself in order that we would be able to control what happened to it.

Jim contacted the guys from Italy and got them underway to figure out who best to send to Utila, and arranged for them to fly here for the set up and training.

In the meantime, Jim ordered the lumber and other things that he needed to build a home for the Utila Hyperbaric Chamber.  Every day you could see Jim out there with the crew pointing at this and that giving directions (orders) to those working on the building.

“We gotta have this done by the time that Chamber gets here……”   Well, needless to say, he accomplished it.  By the time the parts and pieces got to Utila, the building was there ready for it to be installed.

The Italians arrived and set up was completed, training was completed and, poof, they were gone and we were officially on our own.

At this point the dive shop group decided to help fund the Chamber by putting a dive fee of $1 on each diver along with the $2 fee for the purchase and upkeep and replacement of the buoys.  ………. UTILA BUOY PROJECT  

Jim made it very clear to everyone that we did not, nor would not be, the fee police.  Each dive shop would be in charge of keeping track themselves and paying in each Friday.  As time went on it became necessary to request a daily boat roster from each dive shop.  If the client name was not on the dive roster sent in, they would not be treated for free. Still even now some shops are refusing to pay the Chamber fee, even though they collect it from the client, or they are not reporting the client to the Chamber.  NON supporters will not be linked to the Chamber website nor will be allowed the advantages that the supporting shops will be entitled to.

The Chamber went about collecting its allotted money separately from the buoy fee to avoid complications if things ever changed.  (Which they did as the municipality took control of the $2 fee.)  Thankfully we set it up this way so the Chamber project would not be affected by the turnover in politics.

To help cover expenses, my businesses collect a $4 fee (in lieu of $3 that other shops collect) from each customer, $2 goes to the Municipality for the buoy fund and $2 goes to the Chamber.

Another pivotal point that would shape the future of the next Chamber

Fast forward to 2:30 am, Tuesday, July 24, 2001 when the Hyperbaric Chamber and the Bay Islands College of Diving facilities burned to the ground.

It was devastating to have everything we all worked so hard to acquire gone in a matter of hours.  Jim and I spoke about it and frankly we were tired of being the ones on-call 24 hours a day.   We decided that he would go talk to Ricardo at UDC and see if they wouldn’t take on the responsibility of the next one.  They were not interested.  We really did not want to do this again, but the idea of boats crossing to Roatan in the middle of the night made us realize that Utila, especially with all its growth over the years, could not be without a Chamber.  In those years I could not find someone that would insure the actual Chamber so it was uninsured at the time of the fire. Any funds and from the loss of our buildings and everything in them, we attempted to raise funds/donations to get another Chamber. It was impossible due to 9/11.

 Everyone was donating to that essential fund.  We tried a few other options to see if we could get another one donated, but had no luck and time was ticking away.

Jim and I did not have the financial ability to “just buy one” so we talked it over and took out a loan to purchase the now existing Chamber.

We began the process all over again.

Ship – build – setup – train

Again you would find Jim out on-site with the crew every day, pointing to this or that to be changed – giving directions (orders) to those working on the building.  “We gotta have this done by the time that Chamber gets here……”   Well, needless to say, he almost accomplished it.

The Chamber arrived.  It was offloaded onto the city pier.  Not so easy to get this one to the Chamber building as the last one!   They had to figure out a way to get it from the pier down the road and into the building.  Finally, they found some metal posts and strategically slid 3 or 4 of them under the Chamber.  This allowed them to SLOWLY roll the Chamber down the street. It took a dozen men pushing and pulling it to roll it ten feet at a time and then take the metal post from the back and run it up to the front of the Chamber and put it back under it so they could roll it again. Repeating this until they arrived at the park hours later with it.

Once they got it to the building, thankfully they hadn’t put the doors in yet and were able to SLOWLY slide it up the step and into the building. (I’m pretty sure Jim had the doors still not built planned!)

The new Chamber was home.