Hyperbaric medicine has been practiced for many years, originally tied to the navy and used to treat deep sea divers. Now, the practice has come a long way from its naval roots.

The only hyperbaric chamber in the Maritimes is housed at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax. The chamber has been a fixture in the hospital, healing patients with hyperbaric oxygen therapy for over 30 years.

“So right now, we're at sea level and we're breathing normal air. When you go into a chamber and the chamber's pressurized, we put oxygen hoods on you and you breathe 100 per cent oxygen under pressure,” says Dr. Debbie Pestell, hyperbaric medicine consultant.

Dr. Pestell says hyperbaric medicine was historically used as a treatment for divers with decompression sickness.

“They have nitrogen bubbles in their tissues and by putting them in a chamber and pressurizing them, we crush those bubbles, and then flood their tissues with oxygen,” says Pestell.

The terminology stays true to its naval roots. The treatments are called dives, and despite being stationary, the chamber is often referred to as going down and coming back up.

The practice is recognized as an effective treatment for 14 specific conditions, but Dr. Pestell says about 75 per cent of the unit's patients are being treated for radiation damage.

“They've survived the cancer, and now have long-term complications from the radiation. Their blood vessels are damaged, they break down, and they can't heal their wounds,” says Pestell.

Joy Calkin is one of those patients being treated for radiation damage, specifically to the bone in her jaw.

“My jaw is removed. This whole jaw is removed and I had an infection, and so the pieces of my jaw that were repaired were slipping,” says Calkin.

By putting patients under pressure and breathing 100 per cent oxygen, a new blood supply can help heal the damaged tissue.

“It's quite phenomenal, because you see a non-healing necrotic, or ischemic wound, that completely reverses and heals as we grow the new blood vessels into the area,” says Pestell.

An average treatment lasts about two hours and 15 minutes. Patients are treated five days a week, usually for a total of 40 sessions.

Calkin is about halfway through the course of her treatment.

“I feel this part of my jaw is actually feeling better than it did, because I didn't think there'd be any feel about it at all,” says Calkin.

The goal is to heal the radiation damage so that she is healthy enough to have her jaw repaired.

“We are going ahead with surgery in the middle of September, so until then I'll be receiving treatment,” says Calkin.

The hyperbaric medicine unit at the QEII has staff on call 24/7 for emergencies.

Dr. Pestell says they will sometimes get called in the middle of the night to treat a case of critical, carbon monoxide poisoning.