State’s hyperbaric chamber remains out of service through next year

  • Jack’s Diving Locker instructor Patti Clay, bottom, re-certifies divers Jennifer Goff, left, and Solange Caviezel recently. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file)

KAILUA-KONA — The state’s only public facility offering 24/7 treatment for divers with decompression sickness will continue to be out of service through February.

The Divers Alert Network (DAN), a nonprofit association focused on scuba diving and dive safety, reached out to The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu about potentially treating some cases of decompression sickness, but that hospital said its chambers aren’t designed for decompression sickness.

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The Hyperbaric Treatment Center, located at Kuakini Medical Center in Honolulu and operated by the University of Hawaii at Manoa under the John A. Burns School of Medicine, closed in October because of a shortage of doctors able to staff the facility. The university later said it would be closed through November.

But the university said recently that the facility will remain closed through February.

“The Hyperbaric Treatment Center will reopen as soon as a sufficient number of local physicians have been trained and placed on contract so the facility can maintain the 24/7 coverage required for diving-related decompression injuries,” Dr. Jerris Hedges, dean of the School of Medicine, said in a statement.

Decompression sickness, also known as the bends, can be a life-threatening condition for divers. Between the start of July 2016 and the end of this past June, the treatment center recorded 57 treatments for 45 divers. From then through the center’s closure in October, the center recorded 17 treatments for seven divers.

The center has also recorded treatments for nonemergency wound care to 68 patients.

The closure’s announcement followed news that the last physician wouldn’t be available for full-time emergency services.

The center has since hired an expert in trauma and critical care medicine as its interim medical director, who has recently undergone training to administer hyperbaric therapy. Another five to six locally licensed physicians were expected to undergo similar training this month as it prepares to reopen.

Meanwhile, the Divers Alert Network, an international network of organizations focused on scuba diving and dive safety, has asked The Queen’s Medical Center about potentially treating some cases of decompression sickness to help bridge the gap.

That hospital offers hyperbaric medicine as part of its Wound Care and Hyperbaric Center, focusing on chronic, non-healing wounds.

Dr. Matias Nochetto, DAN’s director of medical services and programs, said they were trying to see how DAN and the wound heal center could work together in the interim until the Hyperbaric Treatment Center reopens.

“We would all be in a much better position … if they would be willing to receive divers even during business hours,” he said.

As of now, patients with decompression sickness would need to be taken to the mainland for treatment, which introduces extra time and risk of complications, not to mention the financial cost of transoceanic emergency care.

Nochetto said if a local hospital was able to treat mild cases of decompression sickness, DAN could work closely with the facility to send only those cases the facility is capable of treating.

“They could be heroes,” he said.

When asked about treating divers, The Queen’s Medical Center said they weren’t equipped to handle cases of the bends.

Their chambers, said Cedric Yamanaka, are designed to treat wounds such as diabetic ulcers and bone infections, not decompression sickness.

“Queen’s continues to look at options to support both the university and the community,” he said. “However, no agreements have been reached to date.”

The university also continues to look at solutions in the interim for physician coverage to care for divers who need treatment.

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Bo Pardau, a retired dive instructor, said he was pleased to hear there’s an ongoing effort to fix the situation and get the center staffed appropriately. While he knows of just two divers that have needed recompression in the past five to seven years, he said, a hyperbaric treatment center is still crucial.

“You want it in the wings at all times because it could happen at any time,” he said.

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