Facility strives to treat patients of all sizes

PeaceHealth clinic's new hyperbaric chamber is designed for larger, heavier people

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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A Vancouver speciality clinic is equipping itself to better treat larger and heavier patients.

PeaceHealth's Wound Healing Center on Tuesday received a new hyperbaric oxygen chamber designed for bariatric patients. As Americans' waistlines get bigger, medical facilities — and other types of facilities — are purchasing equipment and modifying structures in order to meet the needs of larger patients.

The new hyperbaric chamber at the Wound Healing Center has a diameter of 41 inches and can be used for patients weighing up to 700 pounds. It's the largest of its type of chamber in the world, and the only one of its size in Oregon and Washington, said Bess Oleksiak, program director at the Wound Healing Center.

"It's pretty special," she said.

The majority of the clinic's patients can use one of its two standard chambers, which have a diameter of 32 inches and can accommodate patients weighing up to 500 pounds. Some patients, however, can't fit comfortably in the chamber (even if they weigh less than 500 pounds) or have confinement anxiety, Oleksiak said.

Prior to the arrival of the new machine, those patients were referred to Seattle's Virginia Mason Medical Center, which has a similar piece of equipment that can treat numerous people at once.

In the past year, the Wound Healing Center had about 15 patients who couldn't be treated in Vancouver, Oleksiak said. If patients didn't want, or couldn't afford, to drive to Seattle for treatment, they usually went without care. One local woman who was too large for the standard chamber recently had her leg amputated after going without treatment, she said.

At the Wound Healing Center, hyperbaric chambers are most commonly used to treat patients with diabetic foot ulcers and radiation injuries, said Dr. Jon Dykstra, medical director at the center.

Hyperbaric chambers look similar to MRI machines. The chambers, however, are not as narrow as MRI machines and are built with clear Plexiglas.

During treatment, the chamber fills with pressurized 100 percent oxygen. The pressure is equivalent to diving 30 to 60 feet below sea level, Oleksiak said. The oxygen is inhaled by the patient and is also absorbed through the patient's skin, Oleksiak said.

With foot ulcers, the oxygen improves the function of the person's immune system to fight infection and helps skin cells multiply and regenerate, Dykstra said. For radiation injuries, the treatment can promote the growth of new blood vessels and tissue, he said.

In addition to treating bariatric patients, the third chamber will help the center reduce its waiting list, Dykstra said. The new chamber, which cost about $200,000, will be up and running Wednesday, March 20.

"As society is getting larger and older, there's going to be a bigger need for hyperbaric chambers," Dykstra said.

Obesity rate doubles

In the past decade, the obesity rate in Washington has doubled. Nearly 27 percent of Washington adults were considered obese in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the Centers for Disease and Prevention Control.

Add in the number of adults who are overweight and that percentage climbs to about 66 percent, or two-thirds of adults, according to state data.

"This is an issue that almost every corner of society has been facing for the last bit of time," said Brian Willoughby, spokesman for Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center.

The Salmon Creek hospital was built 71/2 years ago. The increasing size of patients was taken into consideration during the design and construction phases, Willoughby said.

As a result, every patient room has a lift built into the ceiling in order to move heavier patients as easily as possible. Throughout the building, the hospital has commodes, beds, stretches, chairs and wheelchairs designed for bariatric patients and visitors, Willoughby said. The hospital also has a CT scanner that can accommodate patients weighing up to 650 pounds, he said.

The hospital is currently redesigning its triage area in the emergency department. As part of that process, the doors will be built wider in order to more easily accommodate the wider wheelchairs, Willoughby said.

PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center has added much of the same equipment to its facility. In the hospital's Firstenburg Tower, many of the patient rooms have ceiling lifts, with a couple designed for patients weighing up to 1,000 pounds, said Ann Kincaid, a clinical manager on the hospital's surgical floor.

PeaceHealth also requires its staff to go through sensitivity training. The training focuses on teaching staff how to treat bariatric patients with respect and dignity, while ensuring they receive great care, Kincaid said.

"It's no news to anybody that the size of America is increasing," Kincaid said. "So it's always a challenge to make sure we have equipment that's safe for our patients and our staff."

"I think we do a really good job of meeting the needs of our bariatric patients," she added.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.