A 9-year-old girl who nearly died in a house fire last week is alive and well, thanks in part to a 30-year-old pressure chamber at Fairchild Air Force Base.
The chamber, shaped like a small submarine, dramatically cut the high level of carbon monoxide that accumulated in Kary Ann Anderson’s bloodstream as she lay trapped in a smoke-filled basement.
“She made a remarkable improvement in a very short time,” said Maj. Mark Vanderburgh, one of Anderson’s doctors. “We did something right.”
A medical journal has asked the doctors to write an article about the experience.
The New Year’s Day fire killed the girl’s best friend, Roxanne Rose Wankmueller, also 9.
Anderson was in critical condition when she arrived at Deaconess Medical Center after firefighters pulled her from the West Central house.
An emergency room physician quickly sent her on to Fairchild’s pressure chamber. The device is often used on divers with a painful, dangerous case of the bends - nitrogen bubbles in the blood from a rapid drop in air pressure.
“I was thinking, ‘Man, is this girl going to die?”’ said Capt. David Brown, the physiologist who sat with her in the pressure chamber.
Brown and a nurse donned gold, fireretardant jumpsuits and climbed into the 15-foot metal tank next to Anderson, who lay unconscious on a cot.
Outside, technicians slowly pumped air and oxygen into the white tank to simulate being 66 feet below the water.
The heat and pressure are intense enough to burst wristwatches, cause cotton clothing to burst into flames and leave attendants sweating and lightheaded. To reduce static electricity, the floors around the tank aren’t carpeted.
“You get drunk,” said Brown. “You can potentially make bad decisions. It’s like a steam room in there.”
Fortunately, most decisions are made by doctors outside the tank. In this case, Vanderburgh and Maj. David Earl used a microphone to communicate with Brown.
Anderson’s initial carbon monoxide level reduced her blood’s capacity to carry oxygen by half, said Earl. After two hours in the tank, the level dropped to almost zero.
“She improved quicker than I thought she would,” said Earl.
Many doctors wouldn’t expect a child with such severe carbon monoxide poisoning to survive, at least without some neurological damage, Earl said.
Anderson, who has been released from Deaconess, shows no signs of neurological problems so far, he said.
“When you see something like this that works as advertised, you think, ‘This is great. This is cool,”’ said Brown.
Military doctors occasionally use the tank to treat civilians who are overcome by exhaust fumes after trying to warm up their car in a garage. They also treat people who try to commit suicide by asphyxiating themselves on auto exhaust.
“People get depressed, and our rate of business just jumps once daylight-saving time kicks in,” Brown said.