Alejandro ‘Willy’ Ramos was the victim of a rare and unfortunate accident while deep sea diving in late 2013 near the coast in Southern Peru that left him looking like the infamous cartoon character Popeye the Sailor.
Ramos deep sea dives as a way to make his living, a common practice for coastal villagers in Peru.
Each morning, Ramos would get on the boat he worked for and dive up to over 30 meters in search of mussels, which is what he was doing when he suddenly realized that he was in grave danger.
When Ramos goes on a dive for work, he prepares himself to be underneath the water for up to 8 hours at a time, only ever surfacing if he couldn’t hold his bladder any longer. Something he hated to do as he saw it as a “waste of time”, according to an interview the diver did with BBC Mundo.
In order to stay submerged for that length of time, and to be able to move freely under the water without the weighty encumbrance of an oxygen tank, Ramos goes on his dives attached to a thin air hose that leads to his company’s boat that drifts above him, where his son and another partner wait for him to emerge with the day’s harvest.
In the leisurely world, this type of deep sea diving is known as Snuba diving, a combination of snorkeling and scuba diving, and is often considered to be much safer than scuba diving, but not in the case of Ramos.
Generally speaking, snuba diving is supposedly safer than scuba diving specifically because of the air hose leading to a raft above, which serves as both anchor and oxygen tank caddy.
Having an air hose can also double as a lead to hang onto while you slowly ascend or descend as you acclimate your breathing to the changing pressure.
Essentially, when you are deep sea diving, your air hose is literally your lifeline.
So when Ramos was harvesting shellfish at a depth of 36 meters (118 ft), and suddenly felt his air hose sucking his breath right out of him rather than supplying his oxygen, he knew that it could only mean one thing.
Ramos’s life-giving air hose had been cut by a massive cargo ship that accidentally crossed paths with his hose from the boat.
He knew that if he were going to survive at all, he would have to rapidly ascend to reach the surface before he passed out from lack of oxygen, and even then, there was no guarantee he would survive the ascension.
When he emerged from the surface of the water, he recalls that his vision became incredibly blurry and he found it hard to breathe. Then, within moments of being pulled onto the boat, his body began to swell rapidly.
When a person does not properly decompress at certain intervals on their ascent, they can experience something called “the bends”.
Also known as decompression sickness, it occurs when nitrogen gas bubbles are formed in the blood and tissues of the body as a result of not being released slowly at decompression stops when the bubbles are much tinier and can escape more easily.
If a diver can’t perform decompression, such as in Ramos’s case when he had no ability to breathe until he reached the surface, the nitrogen tries to erupt from the body in large gas bubbles that get trapped, causing swelling, pain, tightness of chest, difficulty breathing, and other symptoms, sometimes even resulting in death.
Generally, a person experiencing these symptoms, known as barotrauma, can spend several hours in a hyperbaric chamber for treatment and be back to normal within the day.
When doctors found that Ramos’s body wasn’t responding to the hyperbaric treatments though, and when they couldn’t figure it out, they all but wrote him off as a lost cause. Ramos couldn’t afford to go to specialists to find out what was wrong, as often he would be lucky to make $30 USD within two days.
That is until this year, four years after the accident when the Naval Medical Center in Peru decided to take on Ramos’s case free of charge after they saw him appear on a Peruvian TV show about his anomaly.
While most people who suffer barotrauma recover even without hyperbaric treatments within a few days on their own, Ramos continued to swell for days, until his body suddenly had an extra 66+ lbs added to it.
When Ramos traveled to Lima to meet with Dr. Raul Aguado at the Naval Hospital, they measured his chest at over 53 inches, and both arms at over 29 inches!
With all of the swelling, it hurt just to be touched, though that didn’t stop people and children from running up to poke him while making hurtful remarks.
As anyone can imagine, Ramos became deeply depressed as he ventured out less and less from fear of painful looks and remarks from strangers and former friends alike. At one point, he even recalls being suicidal.
“I became very depressed, I was close to killing myself. “
Recalls the father of two. He hated to be gawked at, knowing he might never recover and worrying he would be left looking like a cartoon character the rest of his life.
That’s not to mention the constant wheezing in his chest as he tried to breathe, or the pain a simple touch would cause him.
“People ask questions, kids too. They come up and touch him when he is sat down and grab his swollen shoulders. They laugh and say ‘look, it’s Popeye!”
Explains Ramos’s sister, Mary, in an interview with Mirror. Although she knows her brother suffers, she can’t help but be glad he made it out of the sea alive.
“The way he’s now, he shouldn’t be alive. But [I] at least have the satisfaction that he’s here with me.”
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Fortunately for Ramos, Dr. Aguado specializes in deep sea and hyperbaric medicine.
He believes not only that his swelling and breathing problems came on as a result of large nitrogen bubbles getting forcefully trapped inside Ramos’s body tissue when he ascended, but also that he can help him.
Ramos has been able to hope again with news that he might one day live without pain and be able to dive in the sea that he so loves.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe one day I’ll go diving again, and sea the islands.”
It will take many treatments, and Ramos will have to receive several operations to remove loose skin and excess tissue, but the 56-year-old is happy that he will finally be able to get his life back.