The hyperbaric oxygen chamber at Ashland Community Hospital's Center for Wound Healing is about 8 feet long and 4 feet wide. Inside there's a narrow bed and a pillow. It's essentially a large, clear, plastic tube with round metal doors that lock at each end. First used to treat deep-sea divers who surfaced too quickly and got the bends, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is now also used to treat an increasing array of medical conditions.
The tube-like chamber is a space that Betty Johnson of Ashland knows well, "diving" her to one or two atmospheres at 100 percent oxygen for treatments that increased the amount of oxygen in her body to heal an oozing, gaping wound in her chest.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy has been proven to be effective in the treatment of chronic conditions such as:
diabetic wounds of the lower extremity
compromised skin grafts and flaps
delayed radiation injury
soft tissue infections
Treatments may be covered under Medicare and by some health insurance companies. Be sure and check before proceeding.
Betty has lived with breast cancer since 1998. Radiation therapy turned the tender, pink skin of her chest into a hard, inflexible mass of scar tissue that restricted her movement. Radiation therapy also thinned the skin over her Port-a-Cath. "The skin "¦ wasn't healing," Betty remembers. "The texture of the skin had changed after so many times pushing a needle through the skin into the port and the skin stopped healing."
Surgery to remove the port left a gaping, oozing wound that just wouldn't heal. In November of 2006, Betty's doctors, Michael Stone and Stephen Lovich, referred her to the Center for Wound Healing and Hyperbaric Medicine at Ashland Community Hospital.
"Hyperbaric oxygen encourages new blood vessels to grow," explains Karen Adams, a registered nurse with the center. "An environment of 100-percent oxygen under pressure hyper-saturates all the tissues [with oxygen]." Increased blood flow and oxygen in the body stimulates healing in chronic wounds like Betty's and can even kill the anaerobic bacteria that cause deep tissue and bone infections.
After only a week or so of treatments, Betty found that her skin was softer to the touch, so soft that even her massage therapist noticed it. The skin on her chest seemed more flexible and the edges of her wound seemed pinker and healthier.
As a wound ostomy nurse, Karen Adams has spent a lifetime cleaning and bandaging wounds that won't heal. "Someone like Betty," Adams says, "would have gone her whole life with a weepy wound, changing bandages twice a day. Adams is elated at how effective hyperbaric oxygen can be: "To see skin "¦ that has been one hard, fibrous mass and to see a wound actually heal and become skin again is just amazing."
Hyperbaric oxygen isn't a quick shot, now get-up-and-go type of therapy. Betty had to make a real commitment to follow through with the course of treatment. "The total time in the chamber was about two hours [at one sitting]; it's just like the chamber that deep-sea divers use"¦ you need to be at pressure for 90 minutes." That's Monday through Friday, for four to six weeks running, compressing and decompressing every day.
"Some people can't deal with being in the tube because you are in there and dependant on someone else to get out," Betty recalls. "I don't have claustrophobia so for me it was another adventure. The only discomfort is as you're beginning the dive you have to keep popping your ears just like being in an airplane."
It's been almost two months since Betty finished her second course of hyperbaric oxygen treatments and the wound in her chest is healed. "As far as that wound is concerned, I don't worry about it any more; once in a while I just check it and make sure it looks like healthy tissue."
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy was just one step along the road of Betty's struggle, one more day of the journey — a journey made a little easier by the healing of that open wound in her chest.
"I finished my hyperbaric in March and I went to Puerto Vallarta with my friend Cathy," Betty smiles. "I've been trying to have positive experiences and keep looking forward." In Mexico, Betty dived in for real and danced with dolphins: a dance of wild, joyous celebration, a dance of abandon. It was time out of mind with no past, no future — time and life standing still in that very moment of joy.