Posted on Apr 15, 2019, 6 p.m.
Often when brave soldiers come home from serving they have encountered lasting concussion, brain trauma, and mental anguish. More than often our Veterans of war are exposed to explosions and situations in these war torn settings the average person couldn’t begin to imagine. Soldiers who make it home may be missing limbs or all intact, in either case they may be broken and tormented by invisible wounds.
“I was extremely suicidal, I was drinking,I started having problems with PTSD and nightmares, anxiety and depression,” admitted Barry Offenburger, a U.S. Army veteran. “I was just a couple of inches between life and death,” confessed Jeffrey Ruiz, who also joined the Army. “I was having a lot of anxiety, I was having nightmares, I was on so much medication I needed someone to help take care of me,” declared Ruiz. Offenburger added, “I had rage, anger issues, wanted to start fights with random people.”
25 year old Ruiz survived 13 months in Iraq, and 32 year old Offenburger survived 8 months in Afghanistan. Offenburger was in a troop carrier along with 30 other soldiers when it rolled over trying to avoid a suspected IED, causing him to be thrown from the truck and hit his head. Although never diagnosed with head trauma when Offenburger returned home he says he began to change. “My anger was out of control. I started self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. I was no longer happy, even though I had a ton of things to be happy for,” explains Offenburger. While he began to spiral into a dark hole his pregnant fiance who had just moved in put aside her fears of the rough situation they were in to found the determination to find him help.
Offenburger’s finance found hyperbaric chambers in her search. Hyperbaric chambers are a pressurized and sealed enclosure wherein a patient inhales 100% oxygen. These chambers have been used for decades to treat decompression sickness. Physical therapist Ray Cralle explains, “The presence of oxygen is how things grow and how we heal.”
Hyperbaric chambers increase oxygen in tissues causing the body to release stem cells that accelerate healing. Dr. Cralle is convinced this process heals brain trauma which often go undiagnosed in thousands of soldiers returning home from war. “Something horrible is happening because of these explosive devices that are not being looked at,” explained Cralle. “Their brain imaging looks no different than if I hit you with a baseball bat.”
Focused brain injury can be detected with common diagnostic scans, but only a Nuclear Spect Scan can detect injury within the brain that is caused by repeated exposure to concussive blasts.
“On paper, on the record 46 IEDs impacted on my vehicle,” said Ruiz. “An RPG came right over my truck and impacted the wall that was probably about 5-feet away from me. It happens so fast, you just feel the heat, and you get kind of like just stars.”
“The veterans, their brains almost look like popcorn because they’ve been hit in so many areas,” says Dr. Cralle. Brain imaging of Ruiz’s brain before 40 hyperbaric treatments appeared as being irregular and pock marked much like a bowl of popcorn. Images after receiving treatment show a smooth and rounded normal brain. Ruiz’s was brought back 9 months later to be retested to ensure that these were not just short term effects, and he performed even better on psychological testing. Ruiz adds that he couldn’t agree more, “I went from not being able to find my house that I’d lived in for years, to making the Dean’s list every semester since then.”
Unfortunately insurance doesn’t cover cost of these treatments yet as there haven’t been enough studies to finalize the effectiveness of hyperbaric chambers on brain trauma. Veterans such as Offenburger and Ruiz have been fortunate enough to receive the kindness of strangers such as Dr. Cralle, and retired Marine Corps. Lt. Col. Tony Colmenares.
“I’m a true believer,” declares Colmenares who is heading a Red Cross program that paid for the soldier’s room, board, and transportation to receive the treatments. Colmenares is troubled that there is no way to treated the thousands of injured troops returning home. “People are coming back that otherwise would have been lost in other wars. So now we’re trying to figure out… how do we take care of these invisible wounds?”
The Pentagon has begun an extensive study of hyperbaric chambers for the treatment of brain injury, but even if found to be effective it will take years before these chambers are rolled out to treat our troops. Offenburger says when asked what would have happened if he had to wait that long, “I don’t think I’d be here, I’d probably either be dead or in jail.” Grateful she was able to find him help his fiance adds, “I hope it gives someone, at least one person, a little bit of hope that there is help.”
Florida physical therapist Ray Cralle is an active advocate for the positive effects of HBOT, and has been donating his services to Veterans for the past 28 years. Over the past few decades HBOT is an alternative treatment option that is gaining precedence over more traditional methods, and it is now being prescribed more often to treat a variety of conditions such as near drownings, and is also showing great promise in the treatment of PTSD, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease. HBOT has also been gaining much needed attention for helping athletes who have suffered traumatic brain injury.
Senator Tom Wright is advocating to get Florida state legislators to fund HBOT treatments for their 1.6 million Veterans just as Texas, California, and Oklahoma have already done to treat persistent post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms resistant to standard options. Although this is an “off-label” use, the treatment is showing great promise. Treatments are also occurring under supervision and will be monitored by the VA as part of a multisite clinical demonstration research project to examine more fully HBOT for those diagnosed with PTSD for potential usage to treat a larger number of Veterans.
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This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.