- On 04/06/2011
- In Marine Sciences
By Ciaran Tierney - Galway City Tribune
It is as close as you can get to entering a spaceship, or a submarine, without leaving dry land in the West of Ireland, and it has helped save the lives of scuba divers.
And yet many people might not be aware that the Republic’s national medical hyperbaric chamber, which opened late last year at a cost of €1 million, is located at University Hospital Galway.
No scuba diver wants to have to use it, and yet each and every one of them should be delighted that it is there. While the popularity of deep sea diving has increased remarkably over the past decade, the chamber ensures that divers no longer need to be airlifted to Plymouth or Portsmouth in the UK for top class medical treatment.
It is operated mainly by a team of committed, highly trained volunteers who are on call to help out medical staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in case any diver gets into difficulties in Irish waters.
Whether he or she needs to be airlifted from Co Kerry or take an ambulance from Carraroe, a committed team of three will be on hand to administer the treatment once the alarm is raised.
Decompression sickness or ‘the bends’, caused by breathing excess nitrogen under pressure, is a hazard faced by divers who surface too quickly or are forced to divert from their dive plans. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is the only cure and UHG is the only hospital in the country to provide it.
Symptoms of ‘the bends’ include joint pains along the arms or legs, severe itching, numbness, staggering due to poor balance, and acute pain. It is important to seek medical treatment as soon as possible if a diver experiences difficulties after a dive.
UHG was the first and only hospital in the country to get a hyperbaric chamber, pioneered by the late Dr Peter O’Beirn, who was also a keen diving enthusiast, back in 1976. A diver would be strapped into the old ten foot long capsule for treatment, but the unit became obsolete and had to be shut down a few years ago.
While the old chamber might have seemed uncomfortable, it did the job for any diver who got into difficulties through the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s.
But it was unrecognizable compared to the sparkling new facility at UHG which has seating for ten patients, audio and visual links, and even a DVD player if a patient wishes to watch a film during treatment which can last for up to six hours.
At the moment, the chamber is only used for emergency cases of decompression illness or carbon monoxide poisoning. But, were the funding to become available, it could have a host of other uses, tackling traumatic brain injury, stroke, air embolism, gas gangrene, and nervous system problems which can be tackled by allowing a patient to breathe pure oxygen.