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Hope for soldiers: Hyperbaric Chamber will help vets with brain injuries

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Fox Valley Wellness Center/Midwest Hyperbarics in Fond du Lac is one of 16 sites in the nation approved for participation in the National Brain Injury Rescue and Rehabilitation (NBIRR-01) Observational Study of Hyperbaric Oxygen in Traumatic Brain Injury.

The government study, run through the U.S. Department of Defense, will provide military veterans who qualify with free, hyperbaric chamber treatments. “We want to make a difference in these people’s lives,” said Dr. Steve Meress, who heads the Center.

The TBI Treatment Act has passed in Congress (HR 4568) and is presently in the Senate awaiting passage. It would be signed into law by President Obama.

“The present conflict in the Middle East is seeing the highest rate (among veterans) of unemployment, homelessness, suicide and domestic violence of any previous conflict in U.S. history,” Meress said. “Congress has decided something needs to be done about the significant brain injuries and the cost to society regarding these injuries.”

Conservative estimates of the number of chronic brain injury veterans from the Middle East conflict are between 300,000 and 600,000, Meress said.

The treatment Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) is a method of administering pure oxygen at greater than normal atmospheric pressure. Periods of exposure, called “dives,” last between 60 and 90 minutes. Normal length of treatment is around 40 dives. The hyperbaric chamber at Fox Valley is capable of treating seven patients at a time. The study will include veterans who are suffering from traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and post-concussion syndrome The $300,000, massive chamber arrived at the center in late August on a flatbed truck, accompanied by a crane to lift it off, said Fox Valley Administrative Assistant Kathy Pershing. “It resembles a submarine or a capsule. Patients being treated wear a special helmet attached to a tube that delivers oxygen,” she said. The center employs three certified hyperbaric technicians, one stands outside and monitors the gauges. Another technician accompanies patients inside the chamber.

The hyperbaric chamber is the only recognized, FDA-approved therapy for regeneration of nerve and brain tissues, Meress said. He uses the analogy of a fried egg and a frying pan to explain how it works. “The yoke is the injury that occurred at ground zero. Those cells are dead and will never come back. The white of the egg is the cells surrounding the injury. They are alive but not working because they were too close to ground zero. The normal cells are the frying pan. The hyperbaric chamber recruits the egg white cells to go back to normal, regenerates them and makes them active again,” he said.

Promise Confined to a wheelchair, Roberta Swift, 57, of Waupaca, stays in a hotel in Fond du Lac during the week while she receives HBOT treatment for ALS and Lyme’s disease. Her therapy regimen includes twice daily treatments for 32 weeks. “I have pretty good energy, but I haven’t seen improvement in my walking yet. They tell me that happens sometime between the 20th and 30th treatment,” she said. Swift has done all the research and studied various treatments for ALS.

“To me the theory behind this makes sense. I have looked to alternative means for treatment of my disease since there isn’t much to offer me in conventional medicine. I think HBOT is cutting edge and we will see more success in the future,” she said. First used clinically in 1889, the principle behind HBOT is in its ability to oxygenate, through pressure, the tissues of the body by forcing oxygen into the plasma. A related effect is the increased oxygen transport capacity of the blood. Most insurance companies will now pay for hyperbaric treatments for 14 accepted conditions, including diabetic wounds, carbon monoxide poisoning, necrosis, radiation tissue damage skin graft and thermal burns. Meress said he has already treated one veteran, a Marine, who suffered from a head injury. “Our country has the highest rate of suicide in military veterans. This is the right thing to do for them,” he said.

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