Oxygen can be a powerful medicine.
Forced into the bloodstream at high concentrations, it can treat skin ulcers, flesh eating conditions and infections with a success rate of greater than 95 percent. Even wounds that have not healed in 20 years have healed when the patient was treated with high concentrations of oxygen.
Getting extra oxygen into the system isn’t as simple as taking a pill. In fact, it requires an expensive pressurized chamber in which the patient rests and breathes pure oxygen for up to two hours a day, five days a week for as many as 16 weeks.
Monroe’s Valley General Hospital has two of those chambers, and they are the center of the Wound Treatment Center there, which has saved a significant number of people from enduring amputations or persistent wounds that otherwise might have been unable to heal.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy, in which patients are placed in a pressurized chamber and given pure oxygen to breathe, has been around for a long time, and was the treatment of choice for divers suffering bends. But it wasn’t until about 20 years ago that it emerged as a leading therapy for other things.
For a long time, only a few hospitals had hyperbaric chambers, but in the last decade, they have flourished. Valley General got two of them in 2008.
Jonathan Borjeson, a former NASA engineer who left a career working on the space shuttle to go back to school and learn medicine, runs the center, and he said he has seen amazing things.
“We do burn work, treat carbon monoxide poisoning, radiation injuries from cancer treatment, necrotic wounds and infections,” he said. “The therapy reduces mortality by 50 percent.”
Oxygen, he explained, when it suffuses tissues, promotes growth hormones which help wounds fill in and heal. It also promotes the growth of tiny blood vessels and specialized cells needed to grow healthy tissues. And it can help grow osteoblasts, the cells that make and repair bone.
Diabetics in particular have issues with small blood vessels, and oxygen therapy can help them heal wounds. That has helped Valley General keep its rate of amputation very low.
“Our amputation rate here is about 1.5 percent,” said Borjeson.
And even people suffering from burn and trauma injuries can benefit.
But some of the most gratifying successes are when people who have suffered wounds that have failed for years on end to heal get relief.
“We healed wounds that have existed for 20 years,” said Borjeson.
He said the psychological relief can be as profound as the physical relief.
“Sometimes people get given up on,” he said. “Think of the psychological ramifications of that. You have a wound for years, and you know the disease is winning. You don’t feel whole; you can’t work or contribute. And you get them back to where they are totally healed and they are the happiest people. It’s amazing.”