Hyperbaric chambers have been around in the U.S. for more than 150 years, with the first in the country built in New York. But a Connecticut hospital is now using the long-known therapy as a treatment for some of its most critical COVID patients — and is seeing some promising results.
Dr. Sandra Wainwright usually talks with patients over the phone when they're inside the hyperbaric chamber at Greenwich Hospital, discussing whatever chronic wounds or infections require oxygen therapy. Now, those chambers have found a surprising new use.
"There's been some science and some basic physiology that shows, I think, this might be helpful in treating our COVID patients," Dr. Wainwright said.
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Patients are put inside the chamber to get more oxygen into their blood stream to combat the coronavirus' harmful effect on the lungs, thereby avoiding the need for intubation.
"If they are demonstrating that they are going to need a little more help — more oxygen, they're having difficulty breathing, they need higher percentages of oxygen given to them by the hospital — then the people who work here in the hospital will say, I have a candidate for you," Dr. Wainwright said.
However, the treatment is only being used for extreme cases so far. That's because using the hyperbaric chamber isn't a simple solution.
"To take somebody so sick, and put them into a chamber where you seal it off, you pressurize them, and you can't touch them for 90 minutes," Wainwright explained.
Greenwich Hospital has already treated three patients with hyperbaric oxygen therapy, and Wainwright is encouraged by the results. One of the patients who benefitted from the treatment is Cayetano Aparicio-Velasco, who had severe symptoms including having difficulty breathing. He said that after ten minutes in the chamber, his airwaves began to clear.
"When you have a COVID patient who is sick enough to need that level of oxygen therapy, they are just panting the whole time, they are breathing at about 45-50 breaths per minute," Dr. Wainwright said. "That's almost every second."
But once in the chamber, Wainwright said, the patients start to relax, and because of that, their breathing slows.
"You see the fear start to leave their eyes, their muscles start to relax and some of them even fall asleep," Dr. Wainwright said. "And for a precious 90 minutes, they actually feel more normal again."