San Diego native David Meyer fell in love with scuba diving in 2014. He completed his open water certification and quickly moved up to receive his divemaster certification. Meyer then spent six months diving every day in the sparkling blue waters of Thailand, sometimes multiple times a day. When he returned home to California, he pursued his commercial diving certificate and learned skills such as underwater welding, underwater plumbing and hyperbaric chamber operations.
Flash forward to today and Meyer uses his diving experience daily as the lead safety and program coordinator for Sharp Grossmont Hospital's Wound Healing Center and Hyperbaric Medicine Department. Meyer leads the technical operations of the hospital’s hyperbaric chamber, where he helps patients to heal their wounds using technology commonly used in scuba diving.
What is the hyperbaric chamber?
At first glance, the hyperbaric chamber looks like a submarine or an apparatus from Star Trek. The dusty blue contraption never enters the water, but it does have a connection to the deep blue sea.
The U.S. Navy developed and tested hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) after World War I to treat divers with the “bends,” or decompression sickness. Sharp Grossmont’s team uses Navy diving tables, a treatment protocol created and used by the military.
For decades, hyperbaric medicine was mainly associated with treating decompression sickness. Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved HBOT to treat more than a dozen medical conditions, including damage from radiation, persistent infections, poorly healing wounds or skin grafts, and carbon monoxide poisoning.
How HBOT works
During HBOT, patients breathe 100% oxygen inside a pressurized chamber. Under these conditions, the lungs can gather up to three times more oxygen than would be possible at normal pressure. By comparison, the air we all breathe is about 21% oxygen.
Normally, oxygen is transported throughout the body by red blood cells. With HBOT, oxygen is dissolved into all of the body’s fluids and can be carried to areas where circulation is diminished. This enhances the body’s natural healing process by improving its ability to fight infection and promoting the growth of new blood vessels.
“The importance of wound care could not be stressed enough,” Meyer says. “A wound can easily lead to an infection, which in turn, can lead to more serious issues like sepsis or amputation. In most cases, the patients we see in the Wound Healing Center and Hyperbaric Medicine Department have had a wound that will not go away with traditional methods, perhaps due to an underlying condition or previous radiation. They usually require specialized wound care and HBOT to promote healing.”
Sharp Grossmont is accredited to teach an introduction course to hyperbaric medicine, and each member of the hyperbaric team is certified and required to complete months of training. The hospital is one of just three in San Diego to offer this treatment.
What to expect during HBOT
During treatments, up to six patients sit in the pressurized chamber. A staff member puts an oxygen hood on each patient and connects tubing on the hood to an oxygen delivery system. These hoods stay on for 30 minutes at a time, followed by 5-minute breaks. Patients are welcome to spend the treatment reading, resting or talking with other patients.
Treatment is completely painless, but HBOT can have side effects just like any other medication. During treatment, it is possible to notice a temporary change in vision. Very rarely, a patient may experience oxygen toxicity, symptoms of which include dizziness or nausea.
“A staff member is always inside the chamber with patients to monitor their treatment and make sure they’re safe,” says Meyer. “Some patients tell me it reminds them of the submarine rides at Disneyland.”
Treatments are typically five days a week and last two hours. A course of treatment typically ranges from 10 to 60 sessions, or two weeks to three months, but sometimes more. According to Meyer, spending so much time together allows patients and staff to bond, creating a close-knit, almost family-like, environment. Some patients even come back to visit after treatments have ended.
“I enjoy creating connections with our patients and the teamwork that is involved in the process,” says Meyer. “I get to take patients on ‘dives’ every day. I love to tell them, ‘Maybe we will get to see some fish today!’”