st. vincent

St. Vincent Kokomo is home to the city’s only hyperbaric oxygen therapy chambers

There’s only one option in the area for hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

In Howard County, St. Vincent Kokomo’s Wound Healing Center possesses the only hyperbaric oxygen therapy chambers available to treat wounds that normally may not heal easily on their own. More so, the center recently upgraded its chambers to increase patient comfort while undergoing treatment. However, at the heart of the center’s hyperbaric oxygen therapy is the ability to heal wounds that won’t heal with normal treatment options.

According to Dr. Louis Hahn, the medical director of the Wound Healing Center, hyperbaric oxygen therapy got its start in treating individuals for the bends, or decompression sickness that is associated with the rapid depressurization of the human body after being submerged deep underwater. To treat the illness, divers suffering from the illness would be placed in chambers where oxygen levels were increased above what is normally contained in the air. The treatment, through experimentation, was found to be effective for a variety of maladies, including severe open wounds.

“I’ve seen many diabetic foot wounds that have been treated with traditional wound care that haven’t gotten better, but as soon as we got them in hyperbaric they healed in a matter of weeks,” said Hahn. “We’re talking wounds that were treated for six months to a year. We put them in hyperbaric, and they heal sometimes before we finish six weeks of treatment.”

The treatment is undergone in a clear tubular chamber, where a patient has room to lay on their back. Then, air is pumped out of the chamber and replaced with 100 percent oxygen, while the chamber is simultaneously pressurized. Normally, the air in the atmosphere contains only about 20 percent oxygen. This, said Wound Healing Center Program Director Kelli Zimmerman, promotes healthy tissue growth that heals wounds and causes other beneficial side effects.

“So when we put you under pressure, everything is going to shrink or compress as a result of the pressure,” said Zimmerman. “So, we’re causing your system to compress, and we’re forcing in 100 percent oxygen. The body overtaxes itself, and it says, ‘I’ve got more oxygen. What do I do with the extra?’

“It uses it to create new networks of arteries and veins. What is happening when a wound won’t heal is the blood supply is not there or they may have a decent blood supply and just not enough oxygen to carry enough nutrients. So what we’ve done is fixed your plumbing. We’re creating it and making it do more and build more networks.”

As a result, wounds heal quickly. The most prominent type of wounds treated at the center, according to Hahn, are wounds associated with other underlying medical issues. In the instance of diabetic foot wounds, for example, hyperbolic oxygen treatment even can prevent the amputation of limbs.

“Our biggest set of patients are diabetics with foot wounds,” said Hahn. “The longer that wound stays open the greater the chances are of an infection getting into the deeper tissues and the bone, and it could spread to the rest of the body. It could cause them to lose their foot. Our job is to prevent amputations. They are expensive and greatly affect a patient’s life. The average cost of an amputation is $350,000 when you include the surgery, the hospitalization, the rehab, and the prosthesis. If we can prevent that and get people walking around on their own two feet, what a great improvement that is in their lives.”

And patients are touting the success of the treatment.

Anita Coolbaugh just started her second week of hyperbaric oxygen treatment at St. Vincent Kokomo last week. When she first started treatments to help heal a troublesome pressure sore, she was using the facility’s old chambers. With the new chambers delivered last week, Coolbaugh said she not only noticed an improved experience overall, but the treatment she’s undergoing also has had a noticeable effect on her wound.

Additionally, Coolbaugh has noticed other positive side effects from the treatment as well, such as improvements to her skin.

“(My pressure sore) is healing a lot faster … I just feel like it’s really been helpful to my skin and everything too,” said Coolbaugh. “I feel like it’s making me look younger, and my wrinkles are going away. It’s an extra bonus.”

Also, Coolbaugh noted that it’s nice being able to travel from her home near Greentown for treatment as opposed to being forced to go to other, further away facilities.

For those interested in undergoing treatment at the St. Vincent Kokomo Wound Healing Center, a referral can be sought from current care providers. Treatment within a hyperbaric oxygen therapy chamber is recommended for wounds such as a range of ulcers, traumatic wounds, surgical wounds, burns, peristomal skin irritations, and other non-healing wounds. Also, the treatment can help with venous insufficiency and vasculitis and with symptoms associated with radiation treatment, such as swelling or bone degradation.