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A mother’s hope

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Scott Larson, technician for H3 Therapy in Wenatchee, helps Sarah Burger and AJ into a hyperbaric chamber for a 90-minute treatment on Tuesday.

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MORE INFO

About hyperbaric therapy

Where: H3 Therapy, 415 N. Mission St., Wenatchee.

Does it work? Some organizations such as the American Cancer Society and the Autism Science Foundation deny any benefits from hyperbaric therapy for their specific conditions. Medical research shows proven results from HBOT in treating decompression problems, radiation illness, chronic non-healing wounds, carbon monoxide poisoning and some gangrene conditions.
     Less certain are the benefits of HBOT for strokes, comas, multiple sclerosis, Lyme disease, autism, traumatic brain injuries and other illnesses. Company promotional literature claim varying results for strokes, cancer, arthritis, autism, migraines, fibromyalgia, depression, dementia, multiple sclerosis and many other conditions. These claims are mostly backed by patients’ passionate testimonies.

How’s it work? In the small, soft-sided hyperbaric chambers used by H3 Therapy, patients lie down inside while oxygen (95 percent pure) flows in and inflates the chamber.

It’s just air? It’s pressurized, nearly-pure oxygen. H3 Therapy technician Scott Larson says the mild pressure equals about 4.2 pounds per square inch, which is similar to the pressure felt at 10 to 11 feet underwater.

And the cost? A single 60-minute session is priced at $100, with frequency discounts available.

Info: The company has branches in Gig Harbor, Lakewood, Seattle, Puyallup, Moses Lake and Wenatchee. Locally, call 393-0743, or visit h3therapy.net.

— Mike Irwin, World staff

WENATCHEE — Brain-injured AJ Justiss sat upright in his mother’s lap and watched visitors come and go. He fiddled with his blanket and reached for a toy.

A casual observer might call that typical behavior for a 2-year-old boy. His mother called it a miracle.

He’s progressed so much in the last few months,” Sarah Burger said of her son, who sustained traumatic brain injuries in an accident 18 months ago. “The speed of healing has increased. He’s more alert. He sits up on his own, unsupported, much more engaged than even a few months ago.”

But, said his mother, it’s not completely the work of Seattle neurosurgeons that have brought about the recent and dramatic change in AJ’s condition. It’s not the hours of surgery. It’s not even the ongoing appointments with physical therapists — although all those things helped save AJ’s life and contributed to his recovery.

It’s the oxygen,” she said. “We go together into the hyperbaric chamber, and most times he just goes to sleep. And he breathes.”

In May, Burger turned to hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) in hopes of helping her son heal better and faster. As many as three times a week at a local hyperbaric clinic, she and AJ recline in an airtight, soft-sided chamber — like a big oblong balloon — into which pressurized, nearly-pure oxygen is pumped. She reads to AJ, or he plays with toys or just naps through the 60- to 90-minute sessions.

HBOT sessions — called “dives” — have long been used by the medical profession to treat deep-sea divers suffering from the bends or speed the healing of wounds and burns. The therapy uses light pressure to saturate the body’s cells with 95-percent pure oxygen. Research has shown in some cases that the wash of oxygen promotes repair and rejuvenation of some tissues.

More controversial, however, is the use of hyperbaric therapy to treat a wide array of conditions and illnesses, ranging from autism to fibromyalgia to heart disease, strokes, cancer and brain injuries. For these conditions, the medical community has issued disclaimers that range from “unproven therapy” to “evidence fails to support HBOT as safe or effective” for autism. The American Cancer Society has stated there’s no evidence that HBOT cures cancer.

A tragic accident

AJ was accidentally injured last year when his father, descending stairs, tripped and fell while carrying the infant. The right side of AJ’s head was damaged and his outcome was uncertain. “Doctors weren’t even sure he’d survive,” Burger said.

The 6-month-old boy underwent emergency surgery at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle to remove a portion of his skull to relieve pressure from swelling, and then later required additional surgery to drain fluids from the brain. He was also diagnosed with infantile spasms, now treated with seizure medications. In July, AJ had titanium mesh installed in his cranium to replace lost skull bone.

The doctors, therapists and medical staff at Seattle hospitals “were really fantastic,” said Burger. “But as time went on, I wasn’t finding all the answers I needed. I kept thinking there may be another way for AJ to heal, an alternative way, a faster way, that we just weren’t trying.”

That’s when she discovered H3 Therapy, a Gig Harbor-based company with an HBOT clinic in Wenatchee.

H3 Therapy has two hyperbaric chambers that serve about 20 local clients suffering from a variety of conditions, including burns, strokes, infections, fibromyalgia, diabetic sores, multiple sclerosis and eyesight problems.

AJ improves

After three surgeries and five weeks in Seattle hospitals, AJ exhibited functions that were below that of a newborn, said his mother. Much of the time, he remained in the “fencing position,” an extended-arm posture that often results from a brain injury. He couldn’t support his head. His eyes wandered and wouldn’t focus. “He lost half his cerebellum, which controls balance,” said Burger, “so he couldn’t stay upright no matter how much therapy we did.”

But since May, AJ has undergone 69 dives of 90 minutes each at H3 Threapy. “He’s made amazing progress,” said Burger. “He’s more alert, his eyes track moving objects, he sits up on his own and looks around.”

Her voice cracked with emotion. “He’s got a blue walker on wheels that he loves. I put him in it and he pushes off, scoots around all over the place. If that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is.”

Reach Mike Irwin at 509-665-1179 or . Read his blog Everyday Business or follow him on Twitter at @MikeIrwinWW.

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