For Katie Sorrentino, her Mother’s Day scuba dive started off as normal as the hundreds of dives she had completed over the last 35 years. The veteran, licensed diver was on vacation with her family in the Bahamas when she experienced symptoms of decompression sickness or “the bends.”
Decompression sickness occurs when there is a rapid decrease in the pressure that surrounds someone underwater. The body attempts to eliminate excess inert gas and – if unsuccessful – develops bubbles in its veins and tissues. When the body has more bubbles than tissue to bear the load, a person can develop decompression sickness.
For Sorrentino, those bubbles were present in her spine, which resulted in a spinal cord injury.
According to Sorrentino, the Mother’s Day dive was a beautiful dive with her family. “Nothing out of the ordinary happened. We did all of our safety stops, including my 78-year-old mother who came with us and was in great shape,” said Sorrentino. “We got back on the boat and about 10 minutes later I began to feel excruciating pain in my upper right abdomen.”
Sorrentino’s brother, a dive master, got her on oxygen quickly and the group rushed her back to her brother’s home where shortly after she began to feel tingling in both legs. Sorrentino was soon airlifted from the Bahamas to a local Miami hospital to quickly undergo hyperbaric chamber treatment, the only form of treatment for decompression sickness. During her time there, doctors told her she would likely be unable to walk again. “I had no feeling or movement from my navel down,” added Sorrentino. “It was terrifying as my mind went through all of the ‘what if’s’ of not being able to walk again.”
After a month of treatment and regaining some sensation in her legs, she was airlifted to Texas and admitted into TIRR Memorial Hermann-The Woodlands, where she would begin intensive physical and occupational therapy to improve her weakness.
According to doctors, each year 1,000 people in the world develop decompression sickness and 2.5 percent experience the injury in their spine.
Under the care of Dr. Mary E. Russell, Medical Director at TIRR Memorial Hermann-The Woodlands, Sorrentino underwent three weeks of physical and occupational therapy. For Russell, treating decompression sickness was a first. “Decompression sickness isn’t something we normally see at TIRR Memorial Hermann, but our team was dedicated to helping Katie in her recovery,” said Dr. Russell. “Our therapists spent time researching and approached her treatment similar to many spinal cord injuries.”
Sorrentino’s therapy consisted of a lot of weight bearing exercises to increase her lower body strength.
After three weeks of intense therapy, Sorrentino woke up one morning in excruciating pain due to a reoccurrence of the bubbles she initially felt after getting on the boat in May. She was taken by Memorial Hermann Life Flight® to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center due to concerns she was experiencing a severe neurological issue. “It’s common for individuals who experience decompression sickness to have reoccurrence of pain out of nowhere,” said Dr. Russell.
After 10 days of unexplainable pain, Sorrentino woke up pain free. She returned to TIRR Memorial Hermann-The Woodlands. “I marveled when I returned because I could move my legs even more than before I left,” said Sorrentino. “I felt like I was back home when I returned. I cried when I saw my care team, and from there it felt like an accelerated path to walking on my own.”
She continued her intense occupational and physical therapy, and went from standing with assistance to walking on her own.
“Katie was an extremely hard worker her entire time with us and that played a huge role in her recovery,” said Dr. Russell. “She was always ready for the next thing and next challenge.”
After spending 76 days in the hospital, Sorrentino walked out on her own. “I’m forever grateful to Dr. Russell, my therapists Mithu and Ashley, and everyone on my care team,” said Sorrentino. Although doctors do not recommend she scuba dive again, Sorrentino affirms that snorkeling is just as beautiful. “It makes me sad and I’m going to miss it. We’re a scuba diving family and I don’t think that will change; I’ll just be up on the boat.”
To learn more about rehabilitation services, visit TIRR Memorial Hermann-The Woodlands. Watch Sorrentino’s amazing recovery below.