There’s not a lot of deep water in the Silver Valley, but on Friday, 68-year-old Louise Farley went on her first dive.
The Pinehurst woman was wheeled into a clear plastic oxygen chamber at Shoshone Medical Center. Workers sealed the door and pressurized the chamber. It was as if Farley were breathing from a scuba tank 70 feet under water.
Doctors are trying to save Farley’s right foot, which has extremely poor circulation. A surgeon recently amputated her toes for the same problem.
Farley was the first patient in the 36-bed hospital’s new hyperbaric oxygen chamber. Hospital officials say Shoshone Medical Center is the first hospital in Idaho - and the smallest hospital in the nation - providing such therapy.
“If this little hospital in North Idaho can bring in patients and make it pay, then anyone can do it,” said Dr. Fred Cramer, a former U.S. Air Force surgeon.
Cramer is the hospital’s staunchest advocate of hyperbaric therapy, in which a patient breathes high-pressure oxygen in the airtight chamber. Cramer was introduced to the treatment in 1979 at the Air Force’s School of Aerospace Medicine in Texas.
“I was really skeptical, thinking this was witchcraft and shaking of feathers,” he said. “Now I’m a disciple. I really believe there’s something to this.”
Cramer met with officials from Sechrist Industries, a California company that manufactures the chambers. He talked them into installing a chamber in Kellogg as a demonstration project for the company. Sechrist rents space at the hospital, pays personnel costs - and collects the treatment fees.
“This doesn’t cost the hospital a penny,” said Cramer. His only stake in the project, the surgeon said, is $1,250 per month that he’s paid to be medical director of the hospital’s hyperbaric program.
High-pressure chambers have historically been used to treat pilots or divers suffering from rapid decompression. If scuba divers come to the surface too quickly, for example, they will suffer “the bends,” a painful condition in which nitrogen bubbles in the bloodstream. It’s similar, experts say, to the burst of bubbles when one opens a soft drink.
In the mid-1970s, physicians began experimenting with other uses for the chambers. Flooding the body with oxygen, they’ve found, helps heal crush wounds, burns, bone infections and dying tissue like Farley’s foot. In January, an Idaho boy was treated in a hyperbaric chamber in Seattle after he contracted a flesh-destroying infection.
“This is not magic,” said Cramer. “This is just the use of high-dose oxygen as a drug.”
Hyperbaric chambers are also used to treat victims of carbon monoxide poisoning. A Spokane girl was rushed to Fairchild Air Force Base’s chamber after nearly dying of carbon monoxide poisoning in a New Year’s Day fire. The chamber cut her carbon monoxide level to nearly zero within two hours, surprising even the Air Force doctors.
In non-emergency therapy like Farley’s, the patient is eased into the chamber on a hospital table, then workers seal the tube’s heavy metal door. Sometimes patients feel claustrophobic, especially on the first “dive,” said Barbara Boye, director of Shoshone Medical Center’s hyperbaric department.
It takes up to 30 minutes to pressurize the chamber to about twice normal air pressure, Boye said. A typical treatment costs $350 and lasts 90 minutes. Therapy often requires dozens of sessions.
“You have to be very careful when selecting patients for hyperbaric treatment because the cost can be great. Either the hyperbaric is the only known treatment for the particular disease, or you’ve tried everything else,” said Dr. Neil Hampson, medical director of the hyperbaric department at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle.
The Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society has approved the therapy for about a dozen things, including radiation injuries, skin grafts, burns, gas gangrene and tissue infections.
“It’s very useful if you’ve got one of those diseases,” said Dr. Eric Kindwall, a hyperbaric therapy expert at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. There are about 300 hyperbaric chambers in the nation, he said, up from 37 in 1977.
The therapy would have no effect on healthy people, Kindwall said. A healthy body can’t use all that oxygen.
Still, Kellogg hospital officials say they expect calls from desperate patients whose conditions the therapy can’t help.
“Charlatans use hyperbaric oxygen for all kinds of things - sagging skin, sagging breasts, restoring your sex life,” said Cramer. “It’s very easy for this to be abused. We’re a mainstream operation.”
Cramer predicts that Coeur d’Alene and Spokane hospitals will install their own chambers in a few years.
“Once a chamber goes in, they sprout up, simply because it works,” he said.
Lying back in her hospital bed, Farley said she’s cautiously optimistic. It will take more than one treatment to help heal her foot, she realizes.
“I don’t have too much to lose, let’s put it that way,” she said. “I just wish that it had come sooner.”
MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition.