JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas —
Going diving at the Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center
is helping wounded warriors, diabetics and cancer patients recover more quickly
from their ailments.
But the dives are not quite what people might picture. There
is no plunging into deep waters.
Instead, members of the 59th Medical Specialties Squadron's
Hyperbaric Medicine Flight use two hyperbaric chambers to treat patients. The
treatments are called dives because the chamber increases environmental
pressure, much like diving in water.
Although the flight's official mission is treating aviation
decompression sickness, the flight treats patients with a variety of ailments-
mostly retirees, Veterans Affairs patients and dependents of retired military
members, said Col. Michael Richards, 59th Hyperbaric Medicine Flight
"The decrease in altitude chamber use has cut down on
the number of altitude related decompression sickness cases that we have
treated," Richards explained.
One of two in the Air Force, the facility is the only one in
South Texas operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The flight operates two
chambers, a mono-place chamber for treating individual patients and a
multi-place chamber capable of treating up to six patients at once.
Decompression sickness is only one of many reasons to treat
patients in a chamber. Treatable conditions include crush injuries, bone
infections, sudden hearing or vision loss, and some types of soft tissue
Doctors tailor treatment plans to each patient's specific
needs. Ninety percent of patients seen at the facility are being treated for
diabetic foot and lower extremity wounds, or damage caused by radiation
Foot wounds become problematic for diabetic patients because
they can lose sensation in their feet, unknowingly making wounds worse.
Additionally, radiation therapy designed to eliminate unhealthy cells and
tissue in cancer patients can damage healthy tissue and bone as well.
"Using the hyperbaric chamber to treat suitable
illnesses and injuries allows us to provide patients with a 100 percent oxygen
environment at a higher pressure. With higher pressure, we can deliver more
oxygen, increasing oxygenation of the blood and capillary bed density. This
results in faster healing," Richards said.
The flight typically carries a small patient load, five or
six at any given time, and treats each patient for about 30 consecutive
sessions. Each session lasts around 90 minutes, although decompression sickness
treatments can take five to six hours.
As few as 10 sessions in the chamber can help wounded
warriors recover from their injuries more quickly and move on to the
rehabilitation stage sooner because patients "with amputations are not
able to be fitted for prosthesis until they heal," said Richards.
The hyperbaric medicine flight is also a significant part of
Air Force pararescue training.
"We provide the dive qualification test for pararescue
students before they are allowed to move on to dive school," said Master
Sgt. Sandra Diaz, 59th HMF chief.
Students are required to show that they can safely reach a
depth of 60 feet before they can proceed to dive school training, Diaz said.
"We have very few failures, and are usually able to
teach them how to get to depth without injury," he added.
The facility will temporarily move to San Antonio's
Southwest General Hospital in March 2016 while a new home is being built at
nearby Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston. Currently under construction,
the facility will be located adjacent to the San Antonio Military Medical
Center. It is slated for completion in August 2016.
Once the move is complete, the flight will be able to offer
inpatient capabilities not currently available. For more information about the
hyperbaric medicine flight, call 292-3483.