Community Medical Center cut the ribbon Wednesday on its new Wound Healing and Hyperbaric Center in Missoula, where doctors use oxygen therapy to treat chronic wounds that go years without healing in some patients.

The facility, poised on the western edge of the Community Medical Center campus, marks the first hyperbaric wound center in Missoula. Demand for treatment is already high, and it's likely to grow as the population ages and cases of diabetes and obesity increase.

“Wound issues are kind of a hidden problem in America,” said Dave Lechner, the chief medical officer at Community. “You don't hear much about it, but we see it a lot in health care. With this, you can show a wound resolution from start to healing, when before some of these folks would go years or decades without getting better.”

Nearly 7 million Americans are infected with chronic wounds that don't heal – a figure that health care officials say is on the rise due to increased rates of diabetes and obesity. If left untreated, chronic wounds become infected, resulting in amputation.

Two patients were undergoing treatment on Wednesday morning, each reposed in separate pressurized tanks with a television screen hanging overhead.

“At some point in their life, up to 20 percent of diabetics will develop a wound,” said Dr. William Huval, the wound center's medical director. “Of that, the amputation rate does get high. We'd like to make that amputation rate zero.”

In the past, those who did undergo amputation typically had a 50 percent chance of dying within five years. The new hyperbaric chamber and wound clinic looks to eliminate the need for amputation by using pure oxygen to revitalize infected tissue.

That, Huval said, will reduce the need for amputation, saving lives.

“That's what we're really trying to do – trying to save limbs that ultimately save people's lives,” he said. “This adds another level of treatment of very difficult wounds – the diabetic wounds and wounds in radiated fields.”

Chronic wounds, or ulcers, are generally associated with inadequate blood flow to tissue resulting from diabetes, blood clots, radiation therapy, varicose veins or pressure sores. Such infections are most common in seniors, cancer and surgical patients, and obese individuals.

Workers who stand for long periods of time are also at risk, though it's diabetics and their weak immune system that often struggle with non-healing wounds, according to Community's medical team.

“If you don't have blood supply and a strong immune system, anything distal in the body is going to not want to heal,” said Lechner. “The non-healing creates this metabolism change in the body that actually makes the diabetes worse. It's a perfect storm that will eventually take the patient.”

Greg Salisbury, the hospital's program director, said in many cases, patients don't seek treatment because they believe the wound will heal on its own. For some, however, that may never happen, requiring serious intervention by medical professionals.

In the past, Missoula patients needing hyperbaric treatment were often referred to Spokane. Community's new wound center allows the treatment to take place locally – treatment that's required five days a week, resulting in as many as 40 so-called “dives.”

Each session lasts for roughly 90 minutes.

“We use pure oxygen to maximize the body's ability to heal itself,” said Salisbury. “That's the most natural medicine you can get. We pump 100 percent pure oxygen into a pressurized chamber and it maximizes the availability of oxygen to tissues that might not have enough.”

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