Dr. Grace Johnstone’s rare form of Lyme disease progressed almost immediately into meningitis five years ago, snaking from her brain down to her spinal cord and leaving her unable to walk, drive or work.
“I did everything that you could do, and I wasn’t getting better,” Johnstone said. “Medications, IVs and antibiotics weren’t doing it. This did it.”
A friend who owned a hyperbaric oxygen therapy chamber contacted Johnstone in the throes of her illness, inviting the Hardwick resident to give the treatment a try. Enthralled by the results, Johnstone took out a bank loan and purchased a chamber of her own.
Johnstone, a chiropractor by trade, opened a hyperbaric oxygen center in East Hardwick as soon as she could walk again. A Montpelier location followed suit soon after, and just last month, she opened the doors of Hyperbaric Vermont in the Colchester Plaza.
“It should be applied very, very widely — and it is, elsewhere in the world,” Johnstone said. “We tend to go first to pharmaceuticals first because a lot of people don’t know about this.”
The Colchester facility holds three hyperbaric oxygen chambers, each a different size. The most roomy option allows patients to sit upright in a zero-gravity chair while receiving a one-hour treatment, while the other two, smaller chambers, require a more laid back position.
All are asked to strap on an oxygen mask as the treatment begins, whether sitting up or laying down. The sensation is not unlike taking off in a plane at first, Johnstone said, with a few yawning motions required to free up your eardrums as the pressure changes.
At its core, the therapy works as an anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial treatment, normalizing immune function and speeding tissue healing, according to Johnstone.
Things feel quite normal once the chamber is pressurized, Johnstone said. Folks can wear their street clothes inside the chamber and meditate or bring a book, laptop or cell phone along — the treatment is tame enough to keep electronics safe.
Hyperbaric Vermont offers a milder treatment than the hyperbaric oxygen therapies performed in a hospital setting. The air pumped into the masks is 95 percent oxygen, rather than 100 percent, vastly lowering flammability inside the chamber.
The average cost for an hour of hyperbaric therapy is about $400 in Vermont, Johnstone said. At Hyperbaric Vermont, patients pay between $40 and $75 per hour-long session.
“It’s possible because I felt like it was important,” Johnstone said.
She started a nonprofit company about a year ago with the mission to make hyperbaric treatment more affordable, both through her own facilities and by educating the public and other health providers.
Patients with impaired mobility motivated Johnstone to open an office closer to Burlington. The Colchester center currently operates under the nonprofit designation, and the Montpelier office will join up soon, Johnstone said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves hyperbaric oxygen therapy as a treatment for 14 conditions, a categorization most important when talking about insurance coverage, Johnstone said.
Indeed, she says the treatment can be used for almost anything. A mile-long list includes arthritis, autism, Bell’s palsy, cerebral palsy, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, dementia, multiple sclerosis, post-concussion syndrome, radiation damaged tissue, stroke, among dozens of other conditions.
“That’s the importance of making it affordable,” Johnstone said. “Because most people aren’t going to get help from insurance at this point.”
Clients sometimes come in for wellness care, too. High profile professional athletes like Tiger Woods and the Boston Celtics have been open about their use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Earlier this month, a group of cross-country skiers stopped by Johnstone’s clinic for a quick energy boost before a big race.
The majority of Johnstone’s patients come looking for a remedy for an acute ailment, though. One sported a non-healing lower leg wound, brought on by diabetes and hypertension. Photographs taken after 10 hyperbaric treatments show a completely healed sore.
Another says she saw PTSD symptoms recede after seeking the oxygen therapy for elevated liver enzymes. One woman suffering from Lyme disease said she could “feel herself returning” after feeling weak and desperate.
“It’s not a complex thing, that’s what’s great about it. It’s very straightforward as a treatment,” Johnstone said. “This is good for you and good for you.”
For more information about Hyperbaric Vermont oxygen therapy visit http://hyperbaricvermont.org. The Colchester facility is located at 3619 Suite #7, Roosevelt Hwy., in Colchester.