FRAMINGHAM — MetroWest Medical Center has a new strategy for healing serious burns and deep ulcers: diving.
No, the medical center hasn’t acquired a submarine and it isn’t taking patients on field trips to the beach. The so-called “diving” all takes place in the two hyperbaric oxygen chambers at Framingham Union Hospital, part of MWMC’s new Advanced Wound Healing and Hyperbaric Center.
“The way that hyperbarics work is that it’s a combination of pressure and oxygen, so when you go into the chamber, we call it ‘diving,’ because it was originally kind of derived from scuba diving,” explained Carolyn Blaney, the center’s program director.
Blaney works with RestorixHealth, a wound care company that has partnered with MetroWest Medical Center to help manage the new center.
In a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, the air pressure is two to three times higher than normal, according to the Mayo Clinic. The chambers use 100% oxygen — by comparison, the air you breathe typically contains about 20% — to help revascularize tissue and promote faster healing, Blaney explained.
“When you’re in it, it kind of feels like you’re flying in a plane, because that’s how we experience pressure change in real life,” she said. “The only thing that they really feel is that their ears might pop, similar to when you’re in a plane.”
Patients typically stay in the chamber for about two hours at a time, repeating the treatment five days a week for six weeks.
Though the outpatient treatment is “kind of an alien-like experience at first,” Blaney said patients quickly warm up to it, especially since the setup comes equipped with screens for TV shows or movies.
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The multidisciplinary center, which has been open for about three weeks, offers a number of treatments for patients with conditions like diabetic pressure ulcers, burns, flesh-eating bacteria and even sudden acute hearing loss.
Patients at the center can also find advanced techniques such as porcine or fish skin grafts, Blaney said.
“It’s really beneficial to have it done here, because if you’re not going to have it done here, you have to go into surgery for it, and it’s obviously way more cost-effective to be able to apply them in the clinic setting,” she said.
Other treatments include total contact casts and compression therapy. The hyperbaric chambers, however, were the star of the show Thursday at the center’s ribbon cutting ceremony.
One attendee likened the machines to the pneumatic tubes at some banks; Blaney described them as similar to “a clear Pringles can.”
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For Dr. Donald Adams, however, hyperbaric oxygen treatment is “the nectar of the gods.”
Adams, a podiatrist at MetroWest Medical Center, said diabetes is on the rise nationally, driving up the need for advanced wound care techniques in MetroWest and beyond.
“This is the right time — and the right place — for this center,” he said.
Previously, Adams would send patients in need of hyperbaric treatment to hospitals in Boston or Worcester. The added distance meant many patients couldn’t keep up with the 30-treatment commitment needed for best outcomes, he explained.
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The new center is part of MetroWest Medical Center’s mission to bring advanced care to MetroWest, CEO Ava Collins said.
“That’s what we really want, is to be able to offer, to be able to educate, but also to be easily accessible,” she said. “We want to make it easy for people to get the treatment they need.”