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'Diving' promotes healing in 59th MDW's hyperbaric chamber

| 59th Medical Wing Public Affairs | Jan. 8, 2016


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 commander.


"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 infections.


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 therapy.


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.