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Mercy Health's hyperbaric oxygen chambers can help diabetics avoid amputation

Posted at 6:20 PM, Jul 26, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-26 18:33:55-04

CINCINNATI -- By the time Larry Babel realized he had developed a diabetic ulcer on his foot, his doctors told him it was too late to do anything but amputate the affected leg below the knee. It's a relatively common prognosis for diabetics with foot ulcers -- about 19 percent of people who develop one will require an amputation -- but Babel refused to accept it.

He sought a second opinion at Mercy Health Fairfield in Fairfield, where Dr. James Fitzpatrick told him there might be an alternative treatment: Hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

A hyperbaric chamber, which might recall an iron lung or a sci-fi stasis pod at first glance, is a capsule-shaped pod in which air pressure is increased to three times its normal level. 

Under that pressure, a patient's lungs gather more oxygen, which travels throughout the body and promotes increased healing in wounds that might not heal under normal conditions. These can include severe burns, diabetic injuries and carbon monoxide poisioning.

The process wasn't pleasant for Babel, who said he is extremely claustrophobic, but it offered an otherwise-impossible shot at keeping his foot.

"They had to medicate me," he said. "I got through it because of the meds and nurses who work back there."

After 50 sessions in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, he was able to walk away on two flesh-and-blood legs.

"I think Larry's case is so psecial because the perseverance Larry showed with the team," Dr. Fitzpatrick said. "(There's) no give-up in Larry. Larry wanted to push forward."

Mercy Health offers hyperbaric oxygen therapy at four of its sites. Although some diabetics may need amputations no matter what, Dr. Fitzpatrick said anyone facing that prognosis should always seek a second opinon. 

As new treatment options develop and reach hospitals near you, there might be a solution you never knew about.