By Sharon Salyer Herald Writer
Providence Regional Medical Center Everett is the last hospital in Snohomish County to add hyperbaric oxygen chambers — oxygen delivered at high pressure to speed healing — to its array of medical treatments.
But it did so in a dramatic way. On Thursday, a crane carefully lifted the two, 3,200-pound chambers 75 feet into the air.
The chambers, cocooned in layers of protective padding and shipped in wooden crates, were deposited on the fifth floor of the Medical Office Building, adjacent to Providence’s 12-story medical tower.
A special opening had been constructed in the walls of the brick structure, allowing the two crates to be wheeled inside.
The two chambers, which are nearly 9 feet long, are part of the hospital’s new wound healing and hyperbaric medicine center, scheduled to open Feb. 8.
The center will bring together a variety of medical specialists to assist in the healing of slow-to-heal wounds, including radiation burns from cancer treatments or the foot wounds of diabetes patients. Without proper care, these foot wounds can lead to amputations.
But with three other hospitals in Snohomish County operating a total of six hyperbaric chambers already, it raises the question of just how many the county needs.
“Are we at saturation? I don’t know,” said Mike Liepman, chief executive of Valley General Hospital in Monroe. His hospital began operating two of the machines in January 2009.
“Providence has smart people,” he said. “I would assume they have done the data on that. It does beg the question, ‘Do you need a chicken in every pot?’ “
The addition of the machines to all four hospitals in Snohomish County is part of a national trend in health care. The number of hyperbaric chambers have increased from 700 in the early 1990s to approximately 3,500 now, said Sandie Smith, who oversees Valley General’s wound healing center.
The machines allow patients to breathe 100 percent oxygen at high pressures, typically two or more times greater than the pressure at sea level. The treatments speed healing by improving circulation, stimulating blood vessel growth and boosting the body’s immune system.
“If you can create an oxygen-rich environment, certainly that’s a vital aspect of health and wellness,” said Tom Brennan, a vice president for business development at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett.
If purchased, the machines would cost up to $150,000 each, but Providence is leasing its two machines, Brennan said.
Patients climb into a clamshell-like machine with a clear acrylic, see-through canopy. Most treatments last for two hours, said Sherry Schusterman, the wound healing clinic’s program director.
Patients can watch TV, listen to music, read or rest while the treatments are under way.
Generally, patients need multiple treatments, sometimes as many as 70 visits. The treatments usually are given on consecutive days, five days a week.
Because the pressure inside the machines can be twice or more the atmospheric pressure at sea level, patients’ ears often pop as the pressure increases. Although painless, the pressure can also be felt in the sinuses, bowels and lungs.
At the former Stevens Hospital, now called Swedish/Edmonds, the treatments were first offered in 2009. Last year its two hyperbaric chambers provided 29 patients with more than 1,000 treatment sessions.
Demand for the oxygen treatments has increased over the past six months, said Dr. Nilufer Norsworthy, interim director of the hospital’s wound clinic.
“I’m on the phone with one or two doctors every day,” she said. For some patients, hyperbaric oxygen treatments “are the final and only source of treatment.”
Monroe’s Valley General Hospital also began operating its two hyperbaric chambers in 2009, completing 1,450 treatment sessions since then.
In addition to treating the wounds of diabetic patients, the machines have been used to combat infections, including necrotizing fasciitis, the so-called flesh-eating bacteria.
“Patients come to the emergency room with a disease that literally could kill them in a day,” said Smith, who oversees the wound center. “We’re able to completely turn that around. We’ve had amazing success with every disease we’ve treated so far.”
The series of treatments can cost up to $20,000, she said, and is approved by insurance companies after other therapies have failed.
Although expensive, “it’s not nearly as expensive as amputation and the therapy that follows — not to mention the drastic change in quality of life,” she said.
Arlington’s Cascade Valley Hospital, which has two hyperbaric chambers, began offering the therapy in July 2010 and provided 578 treatment sessions last year, said hospital chief executive Clark Jones.
Brennan acknowledged that Providence, the county’s largest hospital, was “somewhat late” in providing hyperbaric therapies. The hospital had considered adding the service for several years, but the timing wasn’t right, he said. Its attention was focused on the construction of its $460 million medical tower, which opened in June.
Having a clinic with both medical specialists and the machines to treat chronic wounds under one roof will add convenience for patients, he said.
Since the hyperbaric oxygen sessions involve daily treatments, “If you live in Marysville, you can imagine that having to drive to Edmonds, Arlington or Monroe every day can be problematic, especially for transportation,” Brennan said.
He said he thinks the hospital will be able to meet a demand for the services. It will be able to treat up to 400 patients who need hyperbaric therapies annually. This year, it expects to provide 2,700 individual treatments. “We have a population base that can support a program here,” Brennan said.
The public will get a chance to see how hyperbaric oxygen therapy works during an open house from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 25 at the Wound Healing and Hyperbaric Medicine Center at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett’s Colby Campus. The center is on the fifth floor of the Medical Office Building, at the corner of 14th Street and Wetmore Avenue.
How they work
Hyperbaric chambers allow patients to breathe 100 percent oxygen at high pressures, often two or more times greater than sea level. Each treatment can last 90 to 120 minutes and patients may need between 20 and 70 treatments. The treatments allow the body to health faster from problems such as diabetic foot wounds and infections.