Every weekday for eight weeks, James Switzer was sealed inside a hyperbaric chamber as he underwent treatment to try to prevent another amputation of his left leg.
After almost dying of carbon monoxide poisoning, Charlie Sharp was treated in a chamber to help flood his blood with oxygen.
Hyperbaric chambers are traditionally known for treating divers who get decompression sickness known as the bends. But at three area landlocked hospitals, the chambers are being used in wound care clinics to treat patients suffering from tissue damage after radiation treatments, deep bone infections, wounds that won’t heal and several other conditions.
Wesley Medical Center has been offering hyperbaric oxygen therapy since 1986. Via Christi Hospital St. Francis started offering the therapy in December 2013. Newton Medical Center added two hyperbaric oxygen chambers when it opened its new wound care facility in February.
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Wesley is the only one of the three hospitals that also uses its two chambers to treat patients after hours and in critical care conditions, such as carbon monoxide poisoning or gas embolisms, which are air bubbles that can block blood flow in a vein or artery, said Amy Bruce, a registered nurse who is the manager of the hospital’s Mid-West Center for Wound Therapy and Hyperbaric Medicine and Outpatient Infusion Services.
Because of its expanded treatment options, Wesley treats patients from all over the state, who are brought to the Wichita hospital for hyperbaric treatment, Bruce said. Sharp runs a hog farm in Great Bend.
At Wesley, an average of five patients are treated in the chambers every day, and as many as eight can be scheduled, Bruce said. The frequency of treatments depends on the condition.
Inside a chamber, patients are “taken down,” which means the air pressure is increased, and they are given 100 percent oxygen, explained Dr. Marilee McBoyle, medical director of Via Christi’s wound center. The air we normally breathe is about 20 percent oxygen, McBoyle said.
The chamber “forces more oxygen into the (blood) plasma to help build new blood vessels to aid in the healing,” McBoyle said.
Sometimes the treatment will save a limb. Sometimes it can save a life.
A wound that wouldn’t heal
Six years ago, Switzer, 72, was diagnosed with diabetes. Foot care is especially important among diabetics because the disease can cause nerve damage and reduce blood flow to the feet. Good blood flow is important for healthy tissues.
For Switzer things started going downhill when he snipped an ingrown toenail on his left foot, he said. The infected wound wasn’t healing with antibiotics so doctors recommended he undergo hyperbaric oxygen therapy.
“I knew it was used for divers, but I didn’t realize (the chambers) can be used to help heal wounds,” Switzer said.
For patients with a chronic wound like Switzer’s, the treatment schedule is 90 minutes to 2 hours, five days a week for six to eight weeks.
But after six weeks of treatment every weekday, his wound didn’t respond. He underwent surgery, choosing to have the more drastic amputation of eight inches below the knee to improve his recovery chances.
To help heal the wound left by his amputation, Switzer has undergone another eight weeks of hyperbaric therapy.
“We are trying to save his leg, since his recovery and rehab will be easier if we don’t have to go above the knee,” McBoyle said.
So far the doctors are optimistic that it can be saved, Switzer said.
Switzer compared the decompression inside the chamber to the feeling you experience during altitude changes on an airplane ride. A former plumber, he sometimes suffers from claustrophobia if he’s in tight spaces.
“But the glass is so clear that you don’t even realize you’re in a small space,” he said. It also helped to watch his favorite shows on the TV monitor mounted on the outside of the chamber.
Like Snow White’s chamber
For an acute condition, such as the carbon monoxide poisoning Sharp suffered, the treatment schedule isn’t as extensive.
Sharp, for example, had two treatments, said his wife, Kathie, with the first happening immediately when he arrived at Wesley after his accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. He had been using a gas-run pressure washer to clean a walkway between two farm buildings and the door he had opened for ventilation blew shut.
Kathie Sharp’s sister, who used to work in the Wesley wound care center, had previously told her the hyperbaric unit “looks like the Snow White chamber,” referring to the clear case the fairytale princess was laid in after eating a poisoned apple.
“I appreciated it being clear since I could see him,” Kathie Sharp said. “It helped me to see him and to talk to him, especially right after the accident because at that point we didn’t know what capabilities he’d have neurologically or physically,” she said.
“It saved my life. I have no complications as a result of the carbon monoxide poisoning,” Charlie Sharp said.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is generally safe, with few side effects, McBoyle said.
For some people the changes in pressure can cause ear problems, resulting in the patients getting tubes put in the ears to help equalize the pressure. Some patients have noticed a temporary change in vision when undergoing treatment, because the air pressure change can affect the eyes, as well.