Minnesota family physician dies after medical emergency while scuba diving in Mexico

By Stephanie Srakocic | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published April 12, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Minnesota doctor Mathew Rolando experienced a medical emergency while scuba diving in Mexico and passed away at a San Diego hospital several days later. 

  • Scuba diving is linked to several known medical risks including decompression sickness and arterial gas embolisms.

Mathew Rolando, MD, was vacationing with his family in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, on March 23, when he experienced a medical emergency while scuba diving. The Minnesota physician was rushed to a nearby ICU, where he was placed in a medically induced coma. On March 27, he was considered stable for transfer to the US and was airlifted to the UC San Diego Medical Center.[][]

A GoFundMe page was set up on behalf of the family to help cover the cost of Dr. Rolando’s ICU stay in Mexico and his immediate care in California. Explaining the need for donations, the page’s creator wrote, “Although the Rolandos have medical insurance, the costs associated with Mat’s care have proven overwhelming. They were unexpectedly required to make upfront cash payments to cover Mat’s ICU hospitalization in Mexico, as well as for his medical evacuation to the United States.” 

On Friday, March 29, the GoFundMe page was updated with an announcement of Dr. Rolando’s death. According to the update, he was declared brain-dead that day, and had been cleared to donate his liver, kidneys, and corneas. Concluding their announcement, the GoFundMe page’s creator wrote, “Please know how much we have felt your love and compassion for Mat and his family from many miles away. Hug your loved ones and have either an IPA or a red wine tonight. Doctor Rolando’s orders!”[] 

Dr. Rolando was a family physician. He graduated from the University of Minnesota’s Medical School in 1999 and is listed as having hospital affiliations with M Health Fairview, a large healthcare provider in the Minneapolis–St Paul metropolitan area.[]

The GoFundMe page has a $100,000 goal. As of April 12, $98,672 has been raised. 

Medical emergencies while scuba diving 

Emergencies while diving are relatively rare, but they can occur. There are known risks linked to the activity. According to the CDC, the most common injury experienced by divers is ear barotrauma, an injury to the ear’s soft tissue.[]

Barotraum occurs when there is a failure to equalize pressure changes within the middle of the ear during descent, creating pressure across the eardrum. This can lead to eardrum bleeding, inner ear damage, and possibly rupture. Divers with a history of risk factors for ear and sinus barotrauma, such as chronic nasal congestion, nasal polyps or deformity, overuse or prolonged use of sinus medications, and use of solid earplugs, are at higher risk of ear barotrauma.[] 

Diving can also lead to organ injuries, including multiple lung problems. Overexpansion of the lungs can happen when divers ascend toward the water’s surface without exhaling. As a result, divers can experience complications such as mediastinal emphysema and changes to their vocal characteristics, as well as medical emergencies and arterial gas embolism. Lung overinflation injuries can range from mild and easily resolvable to fatal.[] 

Recognizing arterial gas embolisms

An arterial gas embolism is a medical emergency. Patients experiencing one commonly exhibit symptoms such as[]:

  • Convulsions

  • Chest pain or bloody sputum

  • Ataxia

  • Dizziness

  • Blurred vision

  • Muscle weakness

  • Numbness or paresthesia paralysis

  • Loss of consciousness

  • Confusion, difficulty thinking, or personality change

Decompression sickness is a condition that happens when divers breathe air under pressure, causing excess inert gas to dissolve in and saturate the body’s tissues. Divers who descend to deep water levels and who stay under for extended periods of time experience greater inert gas saturation. When they ascend, that gas needs to pass back out of the body through respiration. In large amounts, gas can supersaturate tissues, separating to form bubbles that can interfere with blood flow and tissue oxygenation. Decompression sickness is sometimes referred to as “the bends.”[] 

Recognizing decompression sickness

Patients experiencing decompression sickness need urgent medical care. They can exhibit symptoms such as:[]

  • Dizziness

  • Fatigue

  • Itching

  • Loss of consciousness or collapse

  • Loss of bowel or bladder function

  • Shortness of breath or coughing spasms

  • Joint aches or pain

  • Skin marbling or mottling

  • Weakness

  • Loss of coordination, staggering, or tremors

  • Numbness or tingling

  • Paralysis 

  • Personality changes 

Additionally, exposure to cold water can cause peripheral vasoconstriction and a shift in the body’s fluid circulation. This can force excess fluid into the lungs in a condition called immersion (induced) pulmonary edema. This can lead to chest pain, shortness of breath, wheezing, and a productive cough with frothy, sometimes pink-tinged sputum.[] 

Divers who descend to depths greater than 100 ft can experience nitrogen narcosis, a condition in which nitrogen builds up in the brain. This can lead to impairments in a diver’s decision-making while under water, potentially resulting in life-threatening situations. Nitrogen narcosis quickly resolves once a diver ascends to the water’s surface.[]

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