By Kim Walter
WINCHESTER - Fred Zimmer has felt the pressure of being 33 feet below sea level on numerous occasions, but his toes never had to touch the water.
The 90-year-old Winchester resident recently completed 40 two-hour sessions of hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which is offered on Winchester Medical Center's campus in the Center for Advanced Wound Care and Hyperbaric Medicine.
Zimmer had a failed skin graft on his stomach, which resulted in lesions that didn't heal in a timely manner.
"It was a very important decision," Zimmer said on choosing to try the oxygen treatment. "I didn't really have another option, other than living with these lesions that just refused to heal."
Since choosing the treatment option, Zimmer has seen great improvement in his wounds, and said he would recommend the therapy to anyone else who qualifies.
"It was critical for me," he said. "It wasn't an unpleasant experience at all, it was an opportunity ... to see a lot of movies! I never see movies in the morning."
Often while patients are sealed inside the pressurized chamber, they take naps, watch TV, or watch a movie they brought. Even though Zimmer admitted to eventually looking forward to the treatment sessions, his technician through the process said it takes time to feel "at ease" with it.
Michael Chapman, a hyperbaric technician and former Navy scuba diver, said patients are usually nervous the first time. He also constantly gets the question, "Am I going to get wet?"
"After their third time in the chamber, they usually get a bit more relaxed ... especially once the patient and I start building a rapport."
Before and after a patient's session, Chapman runs through a series of checklists to make sure they're physically ready for decompression, and that they haven't suffered any side effects. While in the chamber, Chapman said he enters the patient's status into a log every 15 minutes.
Since the chamber contains 100 percent oxygen, it can be flammable, so some dangers can arise if the necessary precautions aren't taken.
Thai Nguyen, medical director of hyperbaric medicine who is also an emergency room doctor, said the center also keeps a cardiac monitor on patients during the process, even through it's not required.
Nguyen said the risk of complications from hyperbaric therapy exist, but is small. If a patient experienced complications while in the chamber, the patient could be removed in as little as one minute and 10 seconds.
"The most common complication is with popping, ripping or tearing ear drums, and sometimes vision complications, but we have things to help with that," he said. "It's very similar to deep sea diving, when you feel the pressure as you get deeper ... but you don't get wet."
The methodology behind the treatment has been around since the 1800s, Nguyen said, but many physicians and centers still don't use it.
"When miners would go down into the earth, they realized that their cuts and scrapes were healing faster than when they weren't working," he said. "The technology has absolutely progressed, but many doctors and patients haven't heard about it unless they're along the coast, and even then it's thought to only be used to treat divers with bends or decompression sickness."
The research and success from hyperbaric treatment is documented, the doctor added, and he said more advances could be made with it soon.
Currently, the treatment is used for a limited but diverse series of illnesses, including chronic, non-healing wounds or ulcers, compromised skin grafts or flaps and late effects of radiation therapy. However, Nguyen said research is suggesting that the treatment could help in treating traumatic brain injuries, especially in soldiers returning home.
The process and success varies from patient to patient, but Nguyen said he's pleased with the results since the chambers became available in Oct. 2011.
One 88-year-old woman had a wound that didn't heal for three years, but once she started the hyperbaric treatment, it only took around four months before major progress was made. Another young man -- one of Valley Health's first hyperbaric treatment patients -- had an amputation, which resulted in a complicated skin flap. After treatment, though, he was able to get a prosthetic.
Nguyen added that the treatment does help in the healing process, but it's not a "cure all" method. Patients also use a combination of antibiotics and other therapy as well.
There is no age requirement to use the chamber, but a patient has to meet a number of qualifications to be considered.
A typical patient will undergo about 30 sessions, unless there is stalling or regression of the wound healing. In that case, a patient could go to 40 or 50 sessions. The oxygen treatment offered in Winchester is only offered to outpatients, though it can be used in emergency situations. Nguyen said it probably won't happen any time soon, but he'd "love to see the therapy used in the emergency room."
Chapman said while the results aren't necessarily instantaneous, he has noticed that some patients feel better in general after being in the chamber.
"The oxygen is almost like an energy medicine," he said. "Not that we use it for that, but it's kind of interesting."
Zimmer will continue with appointments at the center for checkups to ensure that his wounds stay healed.
"Michael and Dr. Nguyen have done an amazing job," he said. "Overall, I'm very happy, because it worked."
For more information on the treatment, go to www.valleyhealthlink.com/hbo.
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org