Returning to Life
Patients affected by debilitating stroke seek to recover their abilities and their independence with help from Oxygen Oasis Hyperbaric Wellness Center.
by Bill Donahue

“She’s always been brilliant—a straight-A student, a real apple polisher,” John Phillip says of his wife of 46 years, Mary Pat. “After the stroke, she was very quiet—too quiet—and it was causing some memory issues, too. It wasn’t an Alzheimer’s type of memory loss, but stroke affects certain portions of the brain. She’s always been a happy person, but she just wasn’t the same.”

As Phillip suggests, stroke is sometimes referred to as a “thief in the night,” because it appears suddenly and unexpectedly, and it has the potential to steal things from the individuals it affects—namely, language, cognitive function, and motor skills. It can also cause subtle yet significant changes to an individual’s personality, robbing the individual’s family and friends of the person they once knew.

Stroke is caused by a clot or hemorrhage of a blood vessel in the brain. Whether ischemic (a blocked blood vessel) or hemorrhagic (a ruptured vessel), stroke affects as many as 800,000 Americans per year, according to the National Stroke Association. Stroke can also be lethal, and is now considered the fifth leading cause of death in the United States.

When stroke cuts off the flow of blood to an area of the brain, vital brain cells are deprived of oxygen and begin to die. As a result, the abilities controlled by the affected area of the brain may be lost. A small stroke, for example, may cause minor problems such as temporary weakness of an arm or a leg, whereas as a large stroke may leave an individual permanently paralyzed or unable to speak.

But, as many stroke victims are happy to discover, there are forms of therapy that can help to undo some of the damage that stroke has done.

Healing an Invisible Wound
In her quest to recover from the aftereffects of stroke, Mary Pat Phillip and her husband John learned of a noninvasive wound-healing therapy known as hyperbaric oxygen therapy, or HBOT. Likewise, they were happy to know she could receive the treatment at Oxygen Oasis Hyperbaric Wellness Center, an accredited facility in nearby Langhorne.

“Stroke is a neurological condition, but it’s essentially an injury, an invisible wound of the brain that needs to be healed,” says Victoria Bliss-Calkins, owner of Oxygen Oasis. “One of HBOT’s mechanisms of action is angiogenesis—the development of new blood vessels, allowing for deeper saturation of oxygen in the brain. In turn, this can help with everything from memory recall and physical mobility to speech and language. It’s always better to receive the treatment as soon as possible after the stroke, but it’s still helpful years after the fact.”

During each one-hour “dive,” or treatment session, recipients are immersed in 100 percent oxygen at one and a half to three times the normal atmospheric pressure. The environment increases oxygen concentration in the body at 15 to 20 times greater than normal at the cellular level, which accelerates the body’s ability to heal and decreases inflammation, according to Bliss-Calkins. As a result, blood flow can be restored to dormant tissue—a process known as neovascularization—giving these cells the potential to function again.

Besides stroke, HBOT has been used to treat other neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, as well as sports injuries and post-traumatic stress. Through repeated exposure in a hyperbaric chamber and with deliberate increases in pressure and oxygen, up to 8,101 genes in every cell in the human body are stimulated to either up-regulate (turn on) or down-regulate (turn off), according to Bliss-Calkins. The up-regulated genes include those that code for growth and repair hormones, while the down-regulated genes include those that promote inflammation and code for programmed cell death.

“Almost all stroke patients undergo 40 to 60 treatments,” adds Jason Friel, a certified hyperbaric technician who serves as safety and operations director at Oxygen Oasis. “We tell people that they might not go back to running marathons again, but we’re here to help them get back to a good quality of life.”

Among the patients who came to Oxygen Oasis to recover from stroke is Brian Propp. A high-scoring National Hockey League forward who skated for the Philadelphia Flyers from 1979 to 1990 and was later inducted into the Flyers Hall of Fame, Propp came to Oxygen Oasis for treatment in 2016.

“After his stroke, [Propp] had issues with his memory and his speech, and could no longer write with his right hand; he had to teach himself how to write left-handed,” Bliss-Calkins says. “He went through 40 treatments, and now he’s back skating in charity game events, he got more of his energy back, and he has more confidence in his ability to speak.”

Seeing a Difference
HBOT can have a dramatic effect on an individual’s recovery from stroke especially when combined with other forms of rehabilitation, such as speech therapy, physical therapy, and other adjunct therapies. Bliss-Calkins says it’s essential for individuals to seek treatment at a safe, qualified facility such as Oxygen Oasis, which is accredited by The Joint Commission, staffed by certified hyperbaric technicians such as Friel, and overseen by Medical Director Benjamin Lam, D.O., FACOS, FACS.

For Mary Pat Phillip, HBOT has helped her reclaim some of the things she lost in the aftermath of stroke. She has completed approximately half of the recommended treatment protocol, and she thinks the treatments have helped, though she says her husband has noticed her progression more than she has. The Oxygen Oasis staff has noticed a difference, too; whereas she used to need wheelchair assistance to get into the hyperbaric chamber, Friel says she now walks into the chamber independently.

“[HBOT] has been very helpful, and I’m excited to see the cumulative effects once she’s done with all 40 or so treatments,” John Phillip says of his wife. “Right now, she’s at 17 or 20 treatments, or about halfway, and I see a tangible difference. I’ve noticed a turn in her intellect, and I’ve seen a difference in her mood.

“Some of the changes resulting from the stroke were subtle, but when you’ve been around someone for so long, a subtle difference in someone’s personality is big,” he adds. “You miss the little things when they’re no longer there. She’s talking a lot more now, and it feels good to hear her constantly correcting me. I’m just happy to hear her voice.”

Oxygen Oasis Hyperbaric Wellness Center
848 Town Center Drive
Langhorne, Pa.
(215) 352-3720

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life Magazine, September 2018.