Hyperbaric chamber helped my healing

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 10:14 AM

Tom Christensen

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Tom Christensen’s first-person account of his visits to the hyperbaric chambers.

It was a scary day for me and my wife as we made our way down the hall at McKay-Dee Hospital to the wound clinic.

Moments earlier, I had been released — following one week in the hospital — after surgery for chronic osteomyelitis (a severe bone infection) in the pelvic area that had left me with five wounds on my buttocks, a horrible condition for someone with paraplegia.

Doctor’s orders called for strict bed rest, except to and from medical appointments.

An education session about hyperbaric oxygen came first.

The two months previous had been a health nightmare. A feeling of malaise and a subtle ill feeling was finally diagnosed as the feared bone infection. There were abscesses deep in my pelvic area. Doctors tried knocking it out with intravenous antibiotics. Nothing was touched. Blood numbers got worse. That led to the surgery.

Kemper Fernandez, a hyperbaric oxygen tech, did the education session as we kept glancing at the four chambers in the room. She was all business and warned me on several points: One, you have to come five days a week or it won’t do any good; two, nothing metal, no electronics and no books in the chambers; and three, you could get a hole in your lung if we have to depressurize the chamber in a hurry.

The deal was this. You will be in the chamber for 21⁄2 hours on weekdays. The pressure will be equal to being at 45 feet below sea level. (Remember Ogden’s altitude is about 4,400 feet above sea level). You will get 100 percent oxygen, with two air-mask breaks of regular air twice a session. It will be humid and warm. But the treatment will send more oxygen to deep tissue and bones to fight infection and boost healing.

The chambers are acrylic, which quieted my claustrophobic worries. They look like a test tube on its side with a bank vault-type door at one end. After the education session, there was a special flotation bed waiting for me at home and a visit from a home health nurse. Fernandez and the oxygen center’s safety director, Preston Burrell, used a patient lift to get me on a chamber’s gurney. They temporarily disconnected the wound vacuum I was connected to. Because of my paraplegia, they helped me with clothing changes.

Here, I learned Fernandez is a jovial tease with the patients, not like the serious person from the visit before.If I was in a bad mood, her name for me was “grumpy pants.” Burrell is a former Marine, an experienced diver, an oxygen pressure expert and a lover of movies and the San Diego Chargers.

Before they put you in a chamber, the staff checks your vital signs. They put a grounding wire on you in the form of a watch band with a stretchable cord on it. Its purpose? To prevent sparks.

They ask you what movie you want to watch from their collection or from what Burrell has brought in.

Bow-tie-wearing and horse-loving John Martinez is the physician at the wound clinic. Every day, he asked me how my ears were doing from the pressure and how I felt, going into the chamber and coming out. For me, my ears didn’t seem too bothered during what was eventually 80 sessions.

The humidity was the biggest problem for me. The chambers’ environments are linked to outside weather by the way the oxygen is circulated. Weather patterns that brought in thunderstorms were the worst. I had to ration my one water bottle.

The entertainment was good. I watched three Bourne movies, three of the four “Mission Impossible” movies and just about everything Marvel has made, to name just a few. I also fidgeted a lot during the chamber sessions, not knowing the staff was watching me and would tease me afterward. The staff also did the dressing changes on the wounds.

The bone infection limited how the doctors wanted me to transfer. To get there from home, we bought an old Hoyer crank patient lift to get out of the hospital air bed to my wheelchair. Neighbors helped a ton. I think there were 30 or more neighbors who learned how to work the lift. Thanks to them, I made all 80 appointments (nearly a 17-week commitment). Perfect attendance is not a usual event, Martinez said.

The wounds at No. 80? A lot smaller. The vicious, antibiotic-resistant bacteria on the earlier wound cultures? Absent.

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