The healing chamber
Enloe Hyperbaric Center offers new hope for hard-to-heal wounds
Sarah Sapp, a tall, striking middle-aged Chico resident, is one of the patients benefiting from the hyperbaric chamber at Enloe Medical Center’s new Hyperbaric Center. Speaking from an area where patients leave their personal items before entering the chamber—which looks rather like a small submarine—Sapp described how she’d had a non-healing wound between the toes of one foot since August. Her doctor suggested she start hyperbaric treatment because antibiotics hadn’t helped her.
For most people with a cut or wound on the foot, leg, or any other body part, often a few Band-Aids and some antibiotic cream will heal it right up. But for a particular kind of medical patient—a diabetic or one who has bone damage from radiation therapy, for example—wounds are much harder to heal. Sometimes, they can last weeks, or even years.
As part of its Wound/Ostomy Services, Enloe has been offering state-of-the-art hyperbaric treatment for people with hard-to-heal wounds since November at its Mangrove Avenue location. Primary-care doctors and surgeons refer patients to the center, or patients can self-refer.
When patients enter a hyperbaric chamber, they are exposed to 100 percent oxygen in a pressurized environment. Oxygen is “pushed” into the body’s cells, and the oxygen level in the blood triples. This increases oxygen in the body’s tissues and enhances circulation, helping wounds to heal.
Sapp explained how, like all patients who enter the chamber, she first had to learn how to “go down” and “back up,” like a scuba diver, as the hyperbaric chamber is first pressurized and then depressurized.
“It’s not at all uncomfortable in there,” she said. “When they first pressurize it, it’s like you’re diving. [Chamber technicians] take you down to [the equivalent of] about 46 feet below the surface. When they bring us back up, they have to depressurize to keep us from getting the bends.”
She added that it’s a little cold inside the chamber, but patients are given blankets and often watch movies or read to pass the time, and it’s “just really relaxing.” Patients always have a technician with them when they’re in the chamber.
How is her foot wound now after 20-plus treatments? “It’s healing,” she said, “and I have high hopes for it.” She explained that when she gets out of the chamber, she feels “really good” and has a lot of energy because of improved circulation.
Linda Reynolds, a registered nurse and manager of the Hyperbaric Center, said she sees all kinds of patients with chronic, complex, non-healing wounds. A typical patient, she said, is a diabetic with a lower-extremity wound—like Sapp—while some of the other wounds and conditions she sees are venous ulcers and arterial ulcers.
The Enloe Hyperbaric Center is the only center north of Sacramento and south of Redding that offers hyperbaric therapy. The center is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is necessary because oxygen is highly flammable, so there are many rules and regulations that must be followed.
Hyperbaric treatment had been available in Chico for more than a decade at the Chico Hyperbaric Center. Enloe has essentially taken over that company’s services. Now that the center is affiliated with Enloe, an acute-care hospital, insurance companies will pay for patients they wouldn’t pay for before, since all FDA safety standards have been met, which had not been the case previously. “Patients have better access and more comprehensive care right here in our town,” said Reynolds. “This therapy completes that final piece of information that makes us a full and comprehensive center.”
The hyperbaric chamber seats up to six patients and a technician. During a week’s time—Monday through Friday—the chamber is used by anywhere from 20 to 40 people. Sessions last two hours, and patients typically have one to several sessions per week.
“In the last five years,” Reynolds said, “doctors and wound centers have become more and more aware of the value of hyperbaric chambers.
“I’ve watched patients for years who have not been able to have or access the service or be a part of our wound center the way it was before,” she added. “Now they can get treatment, and we can heal things much faster. Any time you can heal things better, any time you can save someone’s foot or limb [from amputation], that’s exciting.”
Osteopathic physician Scott Zittel, one of the doctors who treats patients at the Hyperbaric Center, has a background in emergency-room medicine, with additional education and training in wound care and hyperbarics. When patients come in with a non-healing wound, Zittel does work-ups on them to find the underlying causes of their wounds not healing. He may perform various procedures on a patient, including making use of the hyperbaric chamber. “Hyperbarics is just one piece of the puzzle to help healing,” he offered.
Because the staff at Wound/ Ostomy Services and the Hyperbaric Center work with patients over a period of time, they “develop close relationships with patients,” Zittel said. He used to see people only briefly as an E-R doctor, but since working with the Enloe Hyperbaric Center, he sees patients regularly and for extended periods of time. “It’s kind of nice to know my patients,” he observed.
“It’s fantastic having this,” Zittel said of the center. “There are people we see who have had wounds for years—they’re living with chronic, non-healing wounds, and it’s adversely affecting their lives. Seeing how this [hyperbaric treatment] transforms people’s lives on a case-by-case basis … is very rewarding.”
Reynolds added that Enloe has a “community benefit program” for people who can’t afford treatment. “We don’t turn people away based on their ability to pay.”
Sandy Davies, a spunky, short-haired older woman who lives in Flournoy, in Tehama County, attests to the benefits of the hyperbaric chamber. Because of problems caused by cancer treatments, which included the removal of part of her jaw, she was not able to move her left arm and didn’t have any feeling in her lip.
Now, after approximately two dozen hyperbaric treatments, she’s able to raise her arm up behind her shoulder and has experienced restoration of sensation in her lip.
“I can pucker!” she said. “I think [hyperbaric treatment] is doing a lot of good for me.”