During the nearly three decades Kathy Monday has been a scuba diver, she’s heard of ‘nitrogen narcosis’ twice: the first time during her certification classes in 1991 and the second time in April, in the days following her husband’s deadly diving accident.
On the backside of Molokini — a crescent-shaped, partially submerged crater off of Maui — Jeff Sharp rapidly ascended from a great depth of 200 feet.
He was lifeless when he reached the surface.
Sharp’s behavior that preceded his death was likely the result of nitrogen narcosis, an alteration of consciousness brought on by breathing certain gases while diving, according to several scuba diving publications. It causes an anesthetic effect that can include dizziness, tunnel vision, poor judgment and hallucinations. It can cause feelings ranging from drunkenness and euphoria to hysteria and terror.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The trip to Maui was supposed to be a restful vacation for the busy couple.
Sharp and Monday met at Gervasoni’s restaurant and married in 2013. They both lived in Modesto from the time they were children. Monday is an attorney and owns the popular east Modesto breakfast restaurant Squeeze In. Sharp furnished offices.
Together they share five children and seven grandchildren.
Monday said that since Sharp’s death, she and her family are “living our lives with grace despite the gigantic hole Jeff’s absence has left in each of our lives and the piece of each of our hearts that shall always remain broken until we see him again.”
She said she was willing to share the terrifying story of her husband’s death because “it’s possible it may save a life.”
Through a series of interviews and emails with The Bee, this is the account Monday gave:
Sharp got certified to dive in 2012 and the couple had been to their favorite diving location off the Big Island of Hawaii multiple times, but it was their first trip to Maui.
They’d been there five days with one of Monday’s friends when on April 15 they went on the diving trip to Molokini.
There were four instructors on the boat. Two would stay aboard and the other two would each accompany a group of six to eight divers on the tour.
“While everyone was getting prepared … music was playing and the atmosphere was very upbeat, energetic and party-like,” Monday said.
John Legend’s “All of Me” was playing as Monday and Sharp held hands, looked at each other and said, “Here we go,” just before stepping off the boat into the ocean.
Monday and most of the other divers descended first, about 70 feet, while the instructor took Sharp and another diver down separately because they previously had had trouble clearing their ears.
When they were all together, Sharp was about eight feet from Monday and the group was about five feet off the crater’s wall.
They looked at each other and Monday motioned with her hands to ask Sharp if he was OK. He signaled back that he was.
In recreational diving, the buddy system is used to avoid or survive underwater emergencies. But before Monday and Sharp could “buddy up,” the instructor started banging two metal sticks together to get everyone’s attention, pointing to a group of sharks about 20 feet away.
The group turned in the direction of sharks and watched them for a minute or so.
“When we all turned around to get situated again and get in buddy format to begin the actual dive tour, Jeff was not there,” Monday said.
She looked around and up, thinking he might have had ear trouble and gone to clear his ears, but she didn’t see him.
Then she looked out in the opposite direction of the crater and spotted him swimming away “casually out into the open ocean in a downward direction.”
The instructor banged the metal sticks again and Monday waved her arms to get Sharp’s attention, but he didn’t turn around.
They both began swimming in his direction. The instructor stayed above him and continued banging the sticks.
Monday was trying to reach him; her intent was to grab his hair.
“I estimate that my hands were within five feet above him when my body experienced complete fatigue and I could no longer swim,” she said. “At the same time, Jeff began to descend again, falling farther away from me. It was a nightmare. I felt utter panic.”
At that point, Sharp was an estimated 185 feet below the surface of the water. He was no longer swimming but slowly sinking, with feet down and his body perpendicular to the ocean floor.
Monday took a deep breath from her regulator, removed it from her mouth and screamed Jeff’s name into the water. She did it twice, but he never acknowledged her, just continued to descend.
“I knew I would drown if I did not collect myself,” Monday said.
She put her regulator back in her mouth and tried to concentrate on breathing while looking for the crater’s wall to get her bearings.
The next thing Monday remembers is the instructor by her side saying into her ear that “everything was all right.” Then the instructor pulled Monday’s emergency cord, putting air in her buoyancy vest and sending her to the surface.
The instructor surfaced a short time later and began screaming for help.
She reached Monday, told her Sharp was on the boat and towed her over to it because Monday was too weak and having trouble breathing.
All of the other divers were already on the boat.
“There was a lot of panic going on at the boat and I could barely get myself on the ladder even with (the instructor’s) help,” Monday said. “Once I got on, I collapsed on the floor of the boat and could see that Jeff was lying on the floor of the boat about four feet to my right.”
Sharp was unresponsive, there was a pink fluid on his cheek, and three instructors were performing CPR.
One of the other divers, a stranger, knelt next to Monday, put her head on his arm and covered her eyes with his hand.
“I would recognize him if I saw him, but I don’t even know his name,” she said.
Monday said she didn’t know what to do at that point, so she began to pray and softly chant, “Come on Jeff.”
Her friend, who had gone to her side and held her hand, joined in.
Monday doesn’t know how much time passed, but at some point the Coast Guard boarded the boat and took over CPR.
They stopped when they arrived at the boat ramp.
Monday asked if Jeff was dead, but they just told her they need to get him into an ambulance.
“I asked if I could touch him,” Monday said. “They allowed it, so I held his hand. It was cool to the touch and I felt no energy, which did not give me hope.”
She knew he had passed when paramedics told her for the second time that they would have to discontinue treatment soon.
Monday said all she wanted to do was go home, but paramedics were also attending to her. She had some water in her lungs, they said.
In the ambulance, they hooked Monday up to several machines and radioed to the hospital that she was not getting enough oxygen and her heartbeat was irregular.
Monday said she tried to reassure the paramedics and then the doctors at the hospital that she was fine, that she has arrhythmia so an irregular heartbeat is normal for her.
But doctors told her she was in heart failure and that she could suffer a heart attack at any moment.
Monday remained in ICU for four days and went into heart failure a second time before doctors gave her the right combination of medication to stabilize her.
During that time, Monday said, she remained confident she’d survive and even “talked” to Sharp about it.
“There was one point I was crying and I was just saying, ‘I am sorry, I am not coming to be with you right now. I need to go home and be with my children.’ ” She said.
Monday said she suffered a type of heart failure known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the left ventricle resulting from severe emotional and physical stress.
After her release from the hospital, she was instructed to stay on the island a few more days before flying.
Monday returned to the dive shop to talk to the instructor about what happened.
The instructor wasn’t there but called Monday later that day.
“I learned that I had dove down 185 feet deep in order to try and save Jeff,” Monday said. “She told me that she watched me repeatedly reaching for Jeff and that after I had stopped, he had continued to descend such that she could only see bubbles.”
Monday said the instructors at the dive shop believe Sharp was suffering from nitrogen narcosis, that he eventually went below 200 feet and ran out of air, which caused him to come to his senses and pull his emergency cord, sending him up too rapidly.
Witnesses reported seeing Sharp pop up out of the water.
His cause of death was listed as “rapid ascent.” Nitrogen bubbles were found in his cerebral and cardiovascular systems.
“I believe the diving people were correct about the narcosis as there is no other explanation,” Monday said. “Jeff knew better than to swim off away from his buddy. And, he never once turned to look around although we would have been in his sight if he did. He appeared to be determined to just keep swimming out into that beautiful turquoise water in one direction.”
Having only a vague recollection of what nitrogen narcosis was from her certification courses in 1991, Monday started researching it online.
She read stories about people who had suffered nitrogen narcosis and then did things such as try to give their air to fish or dive down to complete a task, only to sit there until tapped on the shoulder by another diver.
She learned it affects everyone differently, and while it usually occurs below 100 feet, it can happen at just 60 feet and become intensified by over-the-counter medications.
One of those medications, Dramamine, Sharp had taken that day. It was also his first dive below 60 feet.
“I do not recall these things ever being explained in detail or stressed on any dive trip I have taken, which is unacceptable,” Monday said. “When you are on vacation, when you are on one of those tours, you kind of forget about the risks of diving because it is such a fun and exciting thing, and I really think they need to stress more (the dangers).”
Monday said Sharp had swum off in the direction of one of the sharks and thinks he might have been following it.
She said the risk of nitrogen narcosis is another reason to always use the buddy system.
The sharks, and the instructor diverting people’s attention to them before buddying up, “disrupted the whole process,” she said.
Monday said she misses “so many things about (Sharp’s) presence here on Earth. His constant willingness and desire to be helpful to me and everyone he knew, his smile, his laugh, his ever-positive outlook on life, kind thoughtful nature and so much more.”
Eight months have passed since Sharp’s death and she and her family are coping as best they can.
“It doesn’t really get better over time,” Monday said. “It gets better and worse and better and worse depending on the situation and what your memories are. Jeff believed in living joyfully, and so we shall honor that the best we can.”