When Healing Fails, Oxygen Helps
PORT JERVIS, N.Y.—For a man whose living depended on the use of his hands, having the tips of his fingers restored to him through hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) might seem like a miracle.
Rich Lally, manager of the hyperbaric unit at Good Samaritan medical center in Suffern can verify that it was. “The plastic surgeon had written him off, but a family member in the medical community who knew about us told him. He referred himself and we ended up saving the tips of his fingers, sensation and all, and he’s still working today.”
This is only one of the success stories at Good Samaritan Hospital, one of three medical centers in the Bon Secours Charity Health System. Dr. Byoung Yang, director of the Wound and Hyperbaric Institute for the health system, regularly travels to Bon Secours hospital in Port Jervis to treat patients with wounds. “We’ve had great success in many different areas.”
The unit primarily accepts patients needing care for diabetic wounds in the legs or feet, non-healing surgical wounds, arterial ulcers, skin grafts that “don’t take,” and bone wounds caused by radiation. “The majority of what we see here on an out-patient basis are chronic diabetic non-healing wounds and radiation-induced injuries,” Lally says.
The Johns Hopkins Hospital website describes the process. “Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves exposing the body to 100 percent oxygen at a pressure that is greater than what you normally experience. Wounds need oxygen to heal properly, and exposing a wound to 100 percent oxygen can, in many cases, speed the healing process.
Unit Safety Director Anthony deRosa says the treatment is as simple as lying in an acrylic tube. “The person is placed inside the chamber—it is a clear acrylic tube—and then we increase the pressure around them to stimulate the systemic effects of the oxygen on the body.”
Patients say a treatment is noninvasive and relatively relaxing. The patient lies on a table that slides into the chamber. Patients are asked to relax and breathe normally. The chamber is sealed and filled with pressurized oxygen 2.5 times normal air pressure. Sessions can last anywhere under two hours, according to Johns Hopkins Hospital. The chamber is then depressurized.
Lally says “it’s new and at the same time it’s not so new.” Air in a pressurized compartment was first recorded in 1662 for lung disease. The first hyperbaric chamber was built in France in 1834. Anesthetist Orval Cunningham treated the Spanish flu in 1918 with oxygen therapy.
Healing Radiation Damage
Cancer is one of the most feared diseases. When surgeons work on breast cancer patients, the reconstruction process often needs some help, and things can go wrong.
During radiation treatment, Dr. Yang says the patient’s oxygen level decreases 20 to 30 percent of normal. Hyperbaric oxygen “helps to reduce the effects of radiation damage, not acute damage but long-term damage.”
HBOT was used to treat radiation aftereffects in the 1950s. The American Cancer Society claims that HBOT can reverse wounds caused by radiation and is often prescribed for treating chronic wounds associated with radiation exposure.
The unit often takes patients who have undergone reconstruction surgery after a mastectomy. “We’ve had many breast cancer patients who’ve had problems with their mastectomy who had their reconstruction salvaged,” Lally says.
“When we are able to salvage the reconstruction and these women are able to go about their lives with like nothing happened, it’s a great feeling.”
Often when a patient has surgery, certain factors prevent the healing process to pass through various stages. “One of the important reasons is there is not enough oxygen and oxygen is necessary to heal.” Yang says.
Sometimes the healing process stalls. “[The healing process for wounds] get stuck in the second or third stage. What this treatment does is get them over that hump where they are stalled. They can either have a surgical intervention for the closure, or have the body heal all by itself,” says DeRosa.
Lally and deRosa say it’s not a quick fix. “This is not like taking an antibiotic,” DeRosa says.
Lally hopes patients will come for treatment before it’s too late for the healing process to work. “Hyperbaric can grow new cells, it can save cells from the brink of death, but it can’t bring cells back from death, so whatever cells have already died are gone.”
Insurance covers the cost for most patients accepted for treatment. Costs range from $300 to as high as $2,000 per session, depending on the cause for treatment. Lally says most patients are covered by insurance.
When used responsibly at certified medical centers, HBOT can do healing wonders. However, there are some caveats. The FDA warns that HBOT has not been established to treat AIDS/HIV, Alzheimer’s, asthma, Bell’s Palsy, brain injuries, Cerebral Palsy, or depression.
Healing for Mind and Body
Dr. Yang believes in hyperbaric as a powerful yet safe treatment for wounds, especially for the aging population. “Hyperbaric is cutting edge wound treatment and is being more and more utilized because the diabetic population is growing and the population is aging. It’s a very safe treatment and easy.”
As recently as 2000, researchers found that, not only can HBOT save blood cells in bones, it can develop blood vessels themselves. “Hyperbaric oxygen stimulates bone marrow where a lot of stem cells are. Some of those stem cells can become blood vessels. Years ago we thought those stem cells would become blood, or blood cells, but they can actually become blood vessels,” Yang says.
Healing with oxygen is more than a physical treatment. HBOT picks up where other treatments leave off and gives patients the hope and will to continue the healing process.
The Wound and Hyperbaric Institute has been awarded accreditation “with distinction” by the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society. It is one of only four in the state to be so honored and a designation Dr. Yang is rightfully proud. Out of 2000 units in the country, only 40 have that distinction.
HBOT is a treatment very close to how the body heals itself, says DeRosa. “What you’re doing is giving your body a boost. Your body actually does the work, so it’s kinda cool.”
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