Diving into recovery with hyperbaric oxygen chambers

Published: Sep. 19, 2017 at 10:29 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 20, 2017 at 5:57 AM EDT
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SOUTHPORT, NC (WECT) - David Flory is an avid runner, lacing up and hitting the road several times a week. He's in great health today, but a cancer diagnosis in 2003 means he takes nothing for granted.

Flory was shaving when he noticed a lump in his neck. At first, doctors thought it was an infection and treated him with antibiotics.

When the lump persisted, further testing uncovered that the lump was cancerous: squamous cell carcinoma.

"As the word cancer crept into the picture, this was 13 years ago, I pictured all the worst things," Flory said.

His treatment included surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. His road to recovery, however, also included hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

The radiation aimed at the tumor in Flory's neck fought the cancerous cells, but also damaged the blood vessels supplying his jawbone and teeth. As the blood vessels lost the ability to fully nourish the area, his jawbone lost density and weakened. Flory's teeth were also affected.

"My dentist informed me that one of my back left teeth, the roots are rotten," Flory said. It was not because of poor dental care, "but because the radiation had just eaten the roots, and so the tooth had to come out."

Pulling the tooth wasn't an option at the time. The oral surgeon was concerned that extraction would damage and potentially break his mandible. To help the bone regain strength, Flory was prescribed hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

The Dosher Wound Care Center at Dosher Memorial Hospital cared for Flory. In hyperbaric oxygen therapy, a patient lays in a chamber while high pressure oxygen is pumped inside.

"Patients breathe in 30 times the normal amount of oxygen when they're 'in a dive,'" said John Stone, CHRN, Wound Care Center clinical director. The higher oxygen concentrations saturate the plasma and help the body oxygenate areas that might have reduced blood flow from a prior injury, like with Flory's radiated jaw.

"Our average depth that we dive patients to would be the equivalent of scuba diving between 33 and 49 feet of depth and breathing 100 percent pure oxygen at that depth," said Stone.

"First minute or two (in the chamber), you're gonna feel like you're diving to the deep end of the pool. Your ears will start to pop," Flory said.

The hyperbaric oxygen chambers at Dosher also have televisions installed, allowing patients to watch TV and relax during the treatment.

Flory underwent 15 dives before the tooth extraction, two hours per dive. After the operation, Flory dove five additional times to help the bone heal fully.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is currently indicated for 14 medical problems, ranging from carbon monoxide poisoning to severe anemia and acute thermal burn injury.

Stone said many patients at Dosher are treated for diabetic wound complications. The high concentrations of oxygen help the body heal injured limbs.

"I feel great, I feel healthy, and I'm thankful that I'm able to run every day," Flory said.

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