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Hyperbaric Chamber Helps Heal Jaw of Cancer Survivor

Treatments for head and neck cancer have taken a toll on Thomas Johnston. Although the cancer is in remission, he suffered from dry mouth, lost teeth during radiation treatments and was left with a jaw too weak to handle dental implants.

Knowing that Thomas was eager to move on with his life, his dentist referred him to the hyperbaric chamber at the Center for Vascular, Wound and Hyperbaric Center at Tufts Medical Center.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was glad that there was an option,” Thomas says. “And the nurses and technicians there were so friendly and welcoming that it wasn’t overwhelming.”

Treatments for a Stronger Jaw

The cancer treatments took several months, says Thomas, a political campaign coordinator who has also organized arts festivals and helped coordinate Boston’s First Night. During those difficult months, he went through to a range of treatments, but none were quite like the hyperbaric chamber.

The chamber is a long a long capsule that delivers 100 percent oxygen to stimulate healing. Patients lay in the capsule for two hours a day, five days a week for several weeks.  The amount of time depends on their condition and their body’s response.

The oxygen therapy is used to treat a range of internal and external wounds that haven’t responded to conventional treatments such as diabetic foot ulcers, soft tissue infections and radiation burns.

For Johnston, the goal was to improve the strength of his jaw so that he could eventually get dental implants to replace teeth that had to be removed during radiation treatments.

Making Patients Feel Comfortable

Thomas felt a little intimidated when he first walked in to the Wound Center, but that feeling didn’t last.

“Right from when I walked, the nurses and technicians were there to show me around and make me feel comfortable with what was going to happen,” Thomas says.

“We do everything we can to make patients feel comfortable,” says Wound Center Nurse Manager, Kathleen A. Sylvia, RN, WCC. “We understand that this is a big commitment for patients but we know how much of a difference it can make for them so we do what we can to help them through it.”

Thomas says he had many questions and the staff had lots of answers.

“I was really impressed with how they answered all of my questions no matter how minor and they never made me feel that my questions were stupid,” he said.

While in the chamber, movement is limited and activities are restricted but Thomas was able to watch television, listen to music and occasionally just take a nap. A nurse or technician remains in the room with patients at all times to ensure their safety.

“There is an awkward reality to the treatment,” Thomas says. “But the staff normalize it and make it so easy.”

Healing Begins

Thomas says he started to feel stronger after just a few treatments.

“I could even see that my skin tone was better,” he says. His dentist told him that his jaw was getting stronger as well.

He hasn’t had the implants yet, but he will be ready when it’s time.

“I’m grateful that I had this option,” he said. “It means a lot to me to know that I will be able to move beyond the cancer and not let it define me.”

A patient at the Cancer Center at Tufts Medical Center.

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