April 21st, 2003
The Associated Press
WEST POINT, Va.
Some doctors view the experimental therapy that Sabrina Dun's 21-month-old son Caleb has undergone as dangerous, but Dunn believes in it.
She says hyperbaric oxygen therapy _ which involves hours spent breathing in 100 percent oxygen at pressures greater than sea level _ has resulted in positive changes for Caleb, who suffered several strokes after open-heart surgery at six months old.
After 40 treatments inside a pressurized chamber, Caleb has better muscle tone and is trying to roll over instead of lying still, said Gudrun Hart, Dunn's mother. He now reaches for objects, his vision has improved and he even says "Mama."
"I'd been wanting to hear that for a long time," said Dunn, a special education teacher from West Point. "I just started crying."
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy's goal is to force more oxygen into injured tissues to "wake up" dormant or damaged cells that normally wouldn't take in as much oxygen. With some patients, the extra oxygen increases cell activity, improves the body's ability to heal and prompts new blood vessels to grow into damaged areas.
The medical community is divided on how successful oxygen therapy is. Generally, it's more accepted right after a disease or injury occurs. For example, it can be used for carbon monoxide poisoning, decompression illness in divers and cases of near drowning.
A small number of physicians _ and non-doctors who take courses on operating the chambers _ use oxygen therapy on other patients, including people with strokes, brain injuries, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, autism and diabetic nerve damage.
But many doctors argue there's not enough proof the therapy works to use it widely. Treatments normally cost more than $100 each and often aren't covered by insurance.
Timothy Emhoff, a trauma surgeon at Riverside Regional Medical Center in Newport News who has used the therapy for years, said the problem is there's no way to tell with each patient if the treatments will work or have little to no benefit. Results even vary with the same injury or illness, Emhoff said.
"We don't understand the diseases enough," he said. "Some people lump it all under charlatanism and some people say it almost always works. Neither one is true."
Another doctor, Ed Castro, agrees that there is no guarantee of results. Castro has used the therapy for eight years at an alternative medicine clinic in southwest Virginia's Trout Dale.
"At this clinic, almost everybody has gotten something back," he said. "And we're talking about injuries where there's not much else to try."
The gains can be fairly small, Castro said. For instance, or a stroke victim might move from a wheelchair to a walker.
For patients and their families _ like Sabrina Dunn and her only son Caleb _ sometimes small improvements make big differences.
Dunn and her mother, Gudrun Hart, are both members of the West Point Volunteer Fire and Rescue Auxiliary, which raised enough money to bring a mobile oxygen chamber to town for 20 days in March. These mobile chambers are options for families who pay out of pocket for the therapy.
Caleb and a 5-year-old boy with autism went through 40 treatments inside the 7 1/2-high, 4-wide stainless steel chamber.
Since the treatments, Caleb has been more active, Dunn said.
The mother of the autistic boy has reported that he is calmer and more focused, Hart said.
Oxygen therapy is generally safe, doctors say, but there can be serious and even fatal consequences if the equipment is in unqualified hands. Seizures and collapsed lungs are possibilities.
Doctors recommend the therapy only under medical supervision, but for Caleb's treatment, chamber owner John Crowe _ a former commercial diver _ operated the chamber that he tows around the country.
Crowe said he is well-qualified. He has taken certification courses on operating the chamber and administering pure oxygen.
"If I didn't feel confident in myself, I wouldn't be doing it," Crowe said. "And it is rare we don't see results."
Dunn is pleased with the results in Caleb, and she said the auxiliary plans to bring Crowe and his chamber back to West Point soon to work with more children.
"I don't want any of them to miss out."
© Copyright 2003, The Associated Press