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Fritz Kruger of Hayward, Wisconsin, wondered how breathing pure oxygen while enclosed in a pressurized tube could heal his body. Fritz, 56, suffered from side effects of radiation therapy for prostate cancer when he was referred for hyperbaric oxygen therapy in fall 2016.
A U.S. Air Force veteran who served from 1986 to 1995, including in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Fritz was treated for cancer at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Health Care System. He had his prostate removed in 2012, followed by radiation treatments. As of August 2016, Fritz was showing no signs of cancer, but the radiation had taken a toll on his body.
"I had blood in my urine," says Fritz, who also was feeling other painful effects. "There was so much scar tissue that they couldn't find the opening from my kidneys into my bladder."
In Eau Claire, Fritz met with James Banich, M.D., a plastic and reconstructive surgeon who also works with wound care and hyperbaric medicine. Dr. Banich says Fritz was a good match for the treatment.
"He had radiation-induced cystitis, which is a bladder inflammation that would bleed and not heal," Dr. Banich says. "Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is very well-documented as an effective treatment for radiation injury."
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves lying in a pressurized tube for about two-and-a-half hours, breathing pure oxygen. During each treatment — called a dive because the pressurization process feels like going about 30 feet under water or descending during an airplane flight — pressure helps the body deliver more oxygen through the blood.
"Better oxygen delivery allows for better wound healing and the ability to fight infection," Dr. Banich says.
Fritz thought being enclosed in the hyperbaric chamber might make him feel claustrophobic. However, the chamber is clear and fairly roomy inside.
"I thought it was going to be like an aluminum or steel chamber with a little porthole to look out of," Fritz says. "Being able to see all the way around, both sides and up, put me at ease. I was comfortable and relaxed enough to fall asleep."
Those two-hour naps turned out to be a blessing to Fritz, who continued working throughout the course of his 30-day treatment, driving two hours each way to Eau Claire for his treatment five days a week. Within a couple weeks, Fritz says he was starting to feel much better.
"I was amazed at how I was getting better as the treatment went on," Fritz says. His symptoms went away and have not returned.
Dr. Banich says hyperbaric oxygen therapy also is effective for diabetic patients who have wounds on their feet that will not heal. Researchers at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus continue to conduct research and clinical trials to explore the benefits of the therapy for other types of wounds.
Fritz says all the Mayo Clinic Health System staff was fantastic and put him at ease throughout his experience. And he says you can't argue with the result.
"I couldn't ask to feel any better."