From 8,000 feet to 0 in five minutes
Lisa Dekoster relaxes in a hyperbaric chamber that simulates sea-level air pressure. Dekoster is the director of the Vail Mountain Lodge and Spa, where Resort Hyperbarics operates the chambers.|Vail Daily/Ken Lawdermilk| |
When Al Klomparens came to Vail over the holidays for a week of skiing with his family, he found himself spending time in bed instead of on the slopes.
Klomparens has been coming to Vail for many years, but this time he suffered from the symptoms of altitude sickness.
“I had a pounding headache, nausea and felt feverish,” says the 67-year-old from Houston. “My daughter had heard about the hyperbaric chamber treatment and recommended I go.”
Klomparens went to Resort Hyperbarics, a new center in Vail that uses a chamber with supplementary oxygen to treat the altitude sickness, and after a one-hour treatment, he says, he was taking a walk outside feeling much better.
“That evening, we went out for dinner and I had the first good meal in several days,” he says. “I skied the next day. This thing cured my symptoms in one hour.”
Klomparens, who came to Vail’s 8,150 feet above sea level from almost sea level, isn’t alone with his experience with altitude sickness. According to The New England Journal of Medicine, 25 percent of mountain visitors develop symptoms of acute mountain sickness, or AMS.
“If you arrive in the Vail Valley and start suffering altitude sickness, you could be back skiing in less than an hour thanks to hyperbaric oxygen therapy,” says Michael Dyck, director of Resort Hyperbarics, located at the Vail Mountain Lodge and Spa in Vail. “You can be skiing at 8,000 feet at 9 a.m. and be at sea level at 10 a.m., to recover from headaches, nausea and other symptoms. … You can arrive in Vail from Miami and avoid getting sick at all. All this is possible with hyperbaric oxygen therapy.”
Vail now has two portable hyperbaric chambers, similar to those located at the base camp on Everest, which help to prevent and relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness for climbers heading to the summit of the mountain at more than 29,000 feet.
Symptoms of acute mountain sickness usually occur within 36 hour of arrival in the mountains. Altitude sickness not only can ruin a vacation, but if left untreated serious complications can develop, says Dr. David Denton Davis, who in December opened Resort Hyperbarics in Vail.
“If AMS is left untreated, people could go on to develop vomiting and dehydration. Finally, AMS could turn into high-altitude pulmonary edema or high-altitude cerebral edema,” Davis says. “These are conditions that in many cases require helicopter evacuation from the mountain. In the past years we had four cases of high-altitude pulmonary edema. Three were successfully treated with the hyperbaric chamber; one had to go to the emergency room.”
How it works
Since it opened, about 50 people have been treated in Vail with the hyperbaric chamber, a Federal Drug Administration approved method of delivering therapeutic doses of oxygen to the body. The chamber works by increasing the air pressure, as if the patient was descending to sea level. Unlike normal oxygen, hyperbaric oxygen therapy has the ability to dissolve oxygen directly into the bloodstream.
“We recommend that people who have been to high-altitude places like Vail and experienced AMS symptoms be treated in the first 12 hours after they arrive,” Davis says.
A one-hour treatment costs $250, but Dyck says acute mountain sickness symptoms can be fully resolved with one treatment.
“Some people are coming before they even have the symptoms,” Dyck says. “We had at least six patients who heard about us and came when they arrived in Vail.”
Although it’s typically used to treat acute mountain sickness, hyperbaric treatment also works for patients suffering from strokes or burns or recovering from plastic surgery, Dyck says.
“It can also help patients with permanent or temporary brain damage by rebuilding blood vessels in the brain,” Dyck says. “Several professional athletes, like Lance Armstrong, have one (it costs $23,000) because the oxygen therapy helps with fatigue recovery.”
Klomparens, who is coming to Vail again in February, says he will schedule an appointment to get in the hyperbaric chamber as soon as he arrives.
“I want to do it before the symptoms start, as a precaution,” he says. “It’s no fun to go out on vacation and get sick. I would recommend it to my friends. It worked for me.”
Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at email@example.com.
Among Vail’s volunteers, we tracked down Bob “Buckwheat” Buckley, Tony White and Brooke Franke Gagnon. They all said it was tough, that they loved it and suggested that if you try it you’ll love it too.