Breath Easy

Hyperbaric oxygen unit, an innovative treatment option for wound care.

Nearly every day, Robert Markley settles in and tries to take a nap, but this isn't an ordinary attempt at grabbing some afternoon shut-eye. He's inside a clear-glass hyperbaric oxygen chamber with a nurse just outside, and he occasionally has to "pop" his ears to keep them clear, as if he's deep sea diving.

"Some people think it must feel odd or claustrophobic, but really, it doesn't," he says. "As long as you remember to keep your ears okay, it's just like lying down at home."

The chamber was put in place on Jan. 7 to augment Augusta Health's wound care capabilities. The treatment creates an environment in which a patient breathes 100 percent oxygen at a pressure greater than sea level. It takes about 20 minutes for a patient to "dive down" to that level, and another 20 to "come back up." Patients breathe 100 percent for about 90 minutes.

That level of oxygen is beneficial for wound care because in some cases of chronic wounds — such as failing grafts, burns or diabetic ulcers — the body can't send enough oxygen to the affected area. When tissue doesn't get a steady oxygen supply, it can hinder healing, leaving a wound open and subject to infection.

Non-healing wounds So far, Markley has been one of three patients at Augusta Health undergoing hyperbaric oxygen sessions for wound issues. In his case, the 79-year-old was affected by radiation that he underwent in 2010 as part of a treatment for prostate cancer. He began bleeding a year later, and his physician tried a number of medications, but all were unsuccessful.

Most likely, he'll undergo a total of about 40 sessions in the chamber, but could have up to 60 depending on his progress. As of January, with 15 sessions already behind him, Markley noted that he was seeing some slight improvement, and he's hopeful that the progress will continue.

Hyperbaric oxygen treatments are reserved for patients like Markley, who've tried several avenues for chronic wound care already, says Dianne Moody, department director of Augusta Health's Wound Healing Clinic. "This is for a high risk population of patients, who are living with chronic wounds and may even be facing amputation," she says.

The clinic brought in the chamber because patients had been traveling 40 minutes one way, over the mountain, to the nearest treatment center. "When you have to go in five times a week for months, that type of travel is a huge hardship," Moody notes. Staff received comprehensive training and certification for using the chamber, and Moody anticipates that many more patients will benefit in the near future, particularly those who've had to undergo radiation, like Markley. Radiation kills cancer cells, but it also affects the healthy tissue around those areas, and wounds and bleeding can result later. For some patients, it may even be a decade after radiation that wound problems begin to occur.

Because the clinic already provides an extensive range of wound care options, adding hyperbaric treatment just makes sense, Moody believes. "Hyperbaric oxygen is one more tool in our toolbox here, it's something we can offer to make sure we have what patients need," she says.

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