“Happy Cracker” and Other Stories: Hyperbaric Therapy of the Lowcountry
Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: John Brackett
The little boy was 25 months old when the diagnosis was made, a diagnosis no family ever wants to hear. Autism. Among other things, he was completely non-verbal, avoided eye contact, wasn’t able to digest food containing gluten or casein, and didn’t respond to language. He did not have an interest in other people. He only ate to survive and got no real enjoyment from food—rather typical behavior for a child with moderate Autism, a lifelong neurological disorder as yet incurable.
His mother described what it was like. “Living with Autism means that you live in a word of frustration, fear and confusion. Getting a haircut was almost impossible. Going to the doctor was a nightmare. We have been somewhat prisoners in our home.”
At 37 months he had his first “dive” at Dr. Pete Stephens’ Hyperbaric Therapy of the Low Country. After he had completed 12 dives, his vocabulary increased from zero to six words. By 40 “dives,” it had expanded to 37. His gluten/casein problem was gone.
His mother recently wrote Stephens, “Being able to eat his favorite food has been a tremendous blessing… He is so happy and, in fact, put one of his first two word phrases together by spontaneously stating, ‘Happy Cracker,’ as I was making him a snack.”
The “dives” the child took refer to the terminology of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT), which refers back to its nautical origins. Developed hundreds of years ago to help divers recover from the “bends” (decompression sickness), HBOT is in another league today. The “dive” involves a patient lying in a chamber that is filled with pure oxygen. The chamber is pressurized to increase oxygen concentration in the body.
In the case of autism, Stephens explained, “There are injured neurons in the brain, and this therapy pumps the neurons with 10 to 15 times more oxygen than normal. It wakes those idling neurons. It’s amazing, the results we’re getting.” Stephens said the therapy does not cure autism, but does improve the quality of life for the child and the family.
Dr. Stephens was an emergency room physician in the Philadelphia area for 35 years prior to opening his clinic at 94 Main Street on Hilton Head Island. He named Dr. Joel Johnson as the medical director. Johnson, a board certified general surgeon and burn surgeon, studied hyperbarics at the distinguished Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Georgia.
Stephens said, “While I was in Philadelphia, I was on the board of directors of the company that manufactures these chambers,” referring to the pressurized units at his clinic. “They asked me to research the ‘off label’ uses of hyperbarics to create a large market. Stephens became fascinated by hyperbarics being used by U.S. doctors and how hyperbaric therapy was applied in other countries, including treatments for lessening the effects of a stroke and therapy after open heart surgery. There were dozens more.
“Off label” is a term used in the medical community to describe a therapy or drug that is being used for a treatment not recognized by the FDA. “Aspirin is approved for treating pain. It’s not approved for thinning the blood. That’s an off-label use. Most drugs are used off label,” Stephens explained. Using HBOT on Autism patients is “off label.”
Among the 13 FDA recommended uses is treatment for non-healing wounds and bone infections, third degree burns, and failed skin grafts. “The easiest example to understand is that of an infected ulcer. The hemoglobin in the red blood cell carries oxygen molecules to the tissue (to heal the wound). That’s the only thing that carries oxygen,” Stephens explained.
“In hyperberics, you’re dissolving the oxygen in the plasma, the cerebral spinal fluid, the lymphatic fluid, so all the body fluids have oxygen dissolved in them. So when the oxygen has trouble getting down to that ulcer in the bottom of the foot through the blood supply, it’s carried through the lymphatic supply and plasma, and that’s what does the healing,” Stephens said.
And it does the healing fast. “A lady was here a couple weeks ago. She had total knee replacement surgery. Usually that takes a long time to recover—six, eight weeks. She came in for treatment the night before her surgery and the day she came home from the hospital a couple of days later—had several dives. It was less than a week from her surgery and she went to the physical therapist and she was riding a bicycle. She went back to her orthopedic surgeon who said, ‘Wow.’ They called and asked us to send some literature,” Stephens said.
Where the therapy can’t cure, it does change lives. “Take somebody with Rheumatoid Arthritis. You’re on all sorts of drugs, some very serious drugs. With this (therapy), you’re drug free,” said Stephens. “It is the safest modality there is. We’ve had people who have had 20 treatments say, ‘My swelling is down. I can move my hands again.’”
And everyone could always use another “happy cracker.”