VIDEO (4:00) - Hyperbaric medicine in the maritimes: diving for hope

Hyperbaric medicine in the maritimes: Diving for hope

Janice Maclean in the NSHA Hyperbaric Chamber

Nestled just off the service tunnel below the QEII Health Science Centre’s Dickson Building is a place of hope. With only a small “Hyperbaric Chamber” sign on the wall outside to lead the way, you could easily walk by and never know how many lives have been changed inside.

Janice Maclean was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in September of 2010. She fought it off with chemotherapy and radiation treatment. She won that battle, but the war went on. “I was diagnosed with radiation enteritis which means that my bowel has been damaged by the radiation…When I have the flare-ups I always end up in the hospital because I can’t eat anything.” Her doctor decided to explore hyperbaric treatment to help her heal. She had never heard of hyperbaric medicine and the idea of sealing herself inside pressurized capsule with 3 other people for 90 minutes seemed daunting. “They were really hopeful it would help…Of course when I first started I was scared to death and didn’t know what to expect. I thought ‘Oh boy when they close that door it’s going to be really tough.’”

“Even the ones that are slightly claustrophobic, once they get in there they realize it’s not a big deal.” says Dr. Debbie Pestell, the diving and hyperbaric medicine consultant who oversees the only hyperbaric chamber in the maritimes.  The low hiss of the oxygen feed drown out the background chatter and give the room a quiet calm. In the large metal capsule behind her you can see the occasional stirring of Janice,  two other patients and a nurse through the porthole windows.  Janice describes a treatment as “Just sitting there relaxing.  I’ve read six books.  Sometimes we talk.  You share a lot about your problems and your cancer and what you’ve each gone through…you form a bond.  I’ll always remember them.” Dr Pestle says that the social nature of group treatment is one of it’s biggest benefits. “They see other patients around them, often in worse shape then them and they are getting better. They see that they can have a life again.”

“It’s not an area of medicine that you tend to hear about.” admits Dr. Pestell. Her 21 years in the Canadian Navy led her here the QEII Health Sciences Centre hyperbaric chamber room. “I remember thinking ‘They didn’t teach us this in medical school, and this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.’” They’ve been treating patients for a wide variety of primary and emergency care cases here at the QEII Health Sciences Centre since 1984. “They come to us, we force angiogenesis which is a growth of new blood supply in to tissue damaged areas, and then those tissues can heal.” She says it’s a simple process. “They go in to the chamber each day and they’re pressurized. The oxygen hood is put on them and they breathe oxygen under pressure for a total of 90 minutes.” Dr. Pestell has seen countless patients come to her desperate for hope and an end to their pain. “A lot of the patients that come here are at a very low point in their lives. They have survived their cancer; they thought they had it licked, and all of the sudden they’re faced with the devastating long-term side effects of cancer…Many are depressed and have sort of reached the end of their rope…When you’ve got really bad radiation damage you’ll do pretty much anything to get better.”

Janice is near the end of her 40 daily treatments and is feeling great. “I’ll be able to move on and not have to live my life never knowing when I’ll experience another bout in the hospital…When we go through this life threatening disease and we come out the other end  this gives us hope for more healing”

Janice is done for today and is getting ready for the one hour drive to Truro from Halifax ahead of her. It’s been an especially harsh Nova Scotia winter this year, and the commute has been tough but she has no complaints. “Every bit of it’s worth it.”