Lisa Taylor’s eye went blind in an instant.
As she drove down the street, she suddenly lost sight in her right eye. It was as if a curtain had dropped over it.
She pulled to the curb in a panic.
“When I took my hand and covered my left eye, everything was just dark,” she said. “I couldn’t see anything.”
The blindness could have been permanent. But within a few days, most of her vision returned.
The therapy, used for years to treat divers suffering from “the bends,” is being put to many new uses in recent years.
For Taylor, the high levels of oxygen provided by the chamber kept her retina alive after a stroke halted blood flow in the retinal artery.
Keeping the retina alive
Quick action by Taylor, her family and medical team set the stage for her recovery, said Drue Orwig, DO, a Spectrum Health emergency medicine physician and hyperbaric medicine specialist.
The blood clot occurred on a Saturday morning―Saint Patrick’s Day. Taylor, a 46-year-old mother of six children, was driving to festivities in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her three youngest children.
I love it. It brought my eyesight back.
After she lost sight in her eye and stopped the car, her 20-year-old son, Doobie, climbed in the driver’s seat and drove his mom to a nearby emergency room.
A doctor diagnosed her with a retinal artery occlusion―a stroke of the eye. The medical team contacted Tamer Abdelhak, MD, a neurologist specializing in vascular neurology and neurocritical care at Spectrum Health.
He arranged for her transfer to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital because it has the only hyperbaric medicine facility in West Michigan available for emergencies 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
As soon as she arrived, Taylor was taken to the hyperbaric unit, a quiet, softly lit room with three hyperbaric oxygen chambers.
She lay on a bed that slid into a chamber, a clear glass tube that measures 3 feet in diameter. After the green door closed, oxygen pumped into the tube, creating a pressure level like that found 60 feet below sea level.
Quick treatment is crucial because research shows patients get the best results if they receive treatment within six hours, the doctors said.
“The eyes are part of the nervous system. They are like the front windows of the brain,” said Dr. Abdelhak, the division chief of inpatient neurology. “With a stroke of the eye, like a stroke of the brain, time is of the essence. Every minute your brain lives without blood flow, you are losing 1.9 million brain cells.”
A stroke in the retinal artery blocks the blood supply to the retina, the seeing part of the eye. The clot typically dissolves within a few days. And in 30 percent of cases, the patient’s vision improves on its own.
But in most cases, vision does not return.
“The retina, the seeing part of the eye, starts to die very quickly when the blood flow is cut off,” Dr. Orwig said.
“Hyperbaric oxygen therapy develops such high oxygen levels in your body that you can actually provide oxygen to the retina through a different mechanism. It’s basically kind of a back door for supplying oxygen to that seeing part of the eye until the clot dissolves.”
Glimmers of light
After Taylor’s first two-hour treatment, she covered her left eye to check her vision in the right eye. She saw light and images on the periphery of her vision. Hope glimmered in those edges.
“I cried hard. I was so happy,” she said.
She stayed at the hospital five days and received 10 treatments, two each day.
Taylor had no problem handling her time spent in the hyperbaric oxygen chamber.
Before going in, she took precautions designed to prevent any static electricity in the oxygenated chamber.
She wore clean cotton scrubs―no synthetic materials are allowed. She made sure she wore no makeup or jewelry. She removed her wig―a stylish bob with a streak of red, which she had made herself.
Taylor knew the routine well by the time she arrived at the hyperbaric unit for her last session. She smiled as she greeted Darla Harper, a respiratory therapist who has worked in hyperbaric medicine for 13 years.
“What movie do you want to watch?” Harper asked.
Taylor chose “Instinct,” and Harper set up the video to play on the television positioned above Taylor’s hyperbaric chamber.
Once Taylor lay comfortably inside the tube, Harper increased the oxygen level―and the pressure in the tube―to 2.4 atmosphere absolute.
Taylor didn’t feel anything unusual as she breathed in 100 percent oxygen during her treatments. She noticed only a popping sensation at the beginning and end of each session, as the oxygen level increased and returned to normal.
Twice during the treatment, Harper asked Taylor to put a respirator mask over her face. This supplied room air to her lungs, giving her body a five-minute break from the higher oxygen concentration.
After two hours, Harper picked up the phone connected to the chamber and smiled at Taylor.
“You’re on your way out,” she said.
After she emerged from the chamber, Taylor yawned and stretched.
“I feel good,” she said.
The vision in her right eye had improved dramatically in the past five days. Only a pinprick in the center of her field of vision remained blocked.
“I love it,” Taylor said, of the hyperbaric medicine chamber. “It brought my eyesight back.”
Treating chronic wounds
Dr. Orwig and Dr. Abdelhak, both scuba divers, have a special interest in hyperbaric medicine. It has been used since the 1930s to treat decompression sickness―or “the bends”―which can occur when a diver surfaces too rapidly.
In recent years, the uses for hyperbaric medicine have grown dramatically.
“It is used in multiple diseases where blood flow to the tissue is a problem,” Dr. Abdelhak said.
Dr. Orwig has worked as an emergency medicine physician at Spectrum Health since completing her residency there in 2012. In July 2017, she completed a fellowship in undersea and hyperbaric medicine and now oversees treatments for a wide range of illnesses.
Today, the majority of hyperbaric medicine patients are treated for chronic wounds that won’t heal or have tissue injuries caused by radiation treatments for cancer. The treatments help heal wounds by stimulating the growth of healthy blood vessels as well as stem cells, which are healing cells.
Hyperbaric medicine treats necrotizing infections, too, she said. The higher oxygen level inhibits the release of toxins from bacterial infections.
It is also used to treat some cases of sudden hearing loss. And the physicians at Spectrum Health plan to participate in research testing the use of hyperbaric medicine to treat traumatic brain injury.
The hyperbaric medicine unit’s three chambers are generally in use all day, Monday through Friday. And they are available nights and weekends for emergencies. The most common emergency cases involve carbon monoxide poisoning and divers’ decompression injuries, Dr. Orwig said.
‘By the grace of God’
Taylor will continue to receive care from neurologists to evaluate for future stroke risks.
She has she suffered two other vascular issues in recent years. In 2009, she had an aneurysm. And in 2012, she had a stroke. She recovered well from both incidents, although she said some impairment remains on her left side.
She drew on those experiences, as well as her faith, as she faced the stroke that affected her vision.
“I don’t worry about this and I don’t wonder about it,” she said. “I don’t let it bother me. I just learned to pray and let go.
“By the grace of God, I’m still here. That’s all that matters.”