I stand behind my belief that doctors spend their spare time dreaming up additional tests and procedures they can put you through. My plastic surgeon has decided that I need hyperbaric chamber treatments to treat the skin on my chest and prepare it for reconstructive surgery. My radiation treatments damaged the skin on my chest to where it is thin and no longer very flexible. I’m told that hyperbaric treatments have proven to help heal wounds and damaged skin.

I tried to keep an open mind when time came to meet with the hyperbaric specialist. But let’s face it, I’m claustrophobic and I know it. I can’t imagine a good outcome to this appointment. A nurse came in and took my vital signs and promised a tour if I behaved myself. The doctor came into the room and discussed the benefits of hyperbaric treatments. He told me that they like to do 20 treatments before surgery and 10-20 treatments after surgery if my insurance approves the treatment. Since my insurance sucks, I’m thinking I won’t get approved for the full 30 treatments, so I give myself a quick high five and thank the insurance Gods.

Each hyperbaric treatment is called a “dive” and lasts 2 to 2 1/2 hours. They are given once a day, five days a week. I gulp. The doctor then explains that sometimes the skin heals a bit faster than they anticipate, so I shouldn’t worry about those last couple of treatments. Is he kidding? I’m worried about the first couple of treatments, not the last ones!

I tell the doctor that I’m a bit claustrophobic and that I don’t do well in tight spaces. He tells me that most patients don’t have a problem in the chamber, but that they can give me something to lessen my anxiety if I like. The longer he talks to me, the bigger my eyes are getting. When the nurse mentions that it takes 22 minutes to get me out of the chamber in case of an emergency, I have visions of myself freaking out and looking for ways to undo some bolts to let myself out. What are the chances that I can sneak a screw driver or one of those emergency glass break tools in with me?

The doctor then explains that hyperbaric treatments are generally very safe. The main concern is fire. What??! The nurse helpfully chimes in that most of the fires are not in this country. Well I’m reassured. How about you? The doctor agrees with the nurse and says that most fires are in other countries and the only ones in the US were due to equipment malfunctions. I hear this voice in my head, “It takes 22 minutes to get you out of the chamber in case of an emergency.” I’m thinking that it is a good thing they took my blood pressure at the start of the visit and not right now.

I’m not going to let the doctor have all the fun, so I tell him that I have had some issues with perforated ear drums on commercial flights, and that I’m concerned about my ears in the chamber. Why should I be the only one who is worried? I have consulted with my Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor who offered to put tubes in my ears if there was a problem. The specialist decides that we should go ahead and put the tubes in my ears before I start treatment. Oh goodie, another procedure.

I must be looking chalky by now because the doctor tells me that he is going to prescribe Valium for me to take before the first treatment. Uh oh. I clear my throat and say, “I have a little problem with Valium. I tend to interrogate people when I take it.” The doctor starts laughing and says, “That is okay.” No it isn’t! I have taken Valium exactly twice in my life. Both times for medical procedures, and might I point out, both times were with the same doctor who should have known better after the first time.

The first time I had Valium, I interrogated my poor doctor about where he went to school, why he chose his specialty, every place he had lived, why he changed specialties, and I probably asked him his grade point average. When I had to have a second procedure done, I tried to talk the doctor out of giving me Valium. I told him I wasn’t nervous and probably didn’t need it, but oh no, he just had to insist that I take the Valium. Gene went with me to the second procedure and the doctor let him come into the room since he is also a physician. Let me tell you, if it came into my head, it came out of my mouth. I asked one question after another, and rarely waited for a reply. At one point, I looked over and Gene was staring at me like he didn’t know who I was. “Why are you looking at me like that?” I ask, “Don’t you look at me that way.” The really awful part is that I remember the entire thing. So I’m thinking that taking Valium and being confined to a clear tube for 2 1/2 hours is not going to go well.

The doctors leaves the room and it is time for my tour. As the nurse and I walk toward the chambers, she tells me there is no way she could ever do these treatments. Me either sister! When we reach the room where the chambers are located, she asks me to wait outside while she goes in to ask the patients if it is okay for me to view the chambers. When we walk into the room, I swear it was like the movie “Coma”. You remember the scene where all the coma patients are suspended from the ceiling in long rows? Except here, there are two patients in long, clear tubes. One elderly lady turns on her side and waves at me. I think I may have whimpered as I waved back.

I have read that there are two different types of hyperbaric chambers. One is designed for small groups of people and is more like a small room, but most hospitals have gone to the single system that holds one patient at a time. I call them “one holers.” The One Holer is about seven feet long, but only tall enough for you to lie down during treatment. My hospital has two of these chambers, so they can let two patients “dive” at the same time. A television screen is mounted above each chamber so you can amuse yourself while you dive.

The nurse explains that the lights in the room are turned off to help prevent seizures in the patients. There is that voice in my head again telling me that it takes 22 minutes to get me out. I am told that at one point in “my dive” I will be asked to wear an oxygen mask. My claustrophobia meter is in the red zone. But I’m told that I will never be alone. A nurse sits with the patients and can hear everything you say. I imagine her turning down the volume as I scream and beg to be released. This makes me snicker.

The nurse tells me that I will have to remove all clothing, jewelry, etc. and wear a hospital gown while in the chamber, and that I cannot take anything, not even a piece of paper, in with me due to risk of fire. I am told not to wear any cosmetics, cologne, shampoo, deodorant, etc. because of that fire issue. (There goes that voice in my head again!) The chambers are starting to look a lot like coffins.
The last thing the nurse asks me as I’m preparing for my escape is if I am planning any travel during the treatment time. I told her that I currently didn’t have any plans. “Good,” she says, “because you can’t fly and dive in the same day.” I cock my head. Now there is a phrase that I haven’t used before and probably won’t get to use again in my lifetime. I’m really hoping that someone asks me to take a trip in April so I can reply, “I’m sorry that I can’t go. I can’t fly and dive in the same day.”

Fortunately, no friends or family are allowed in the “dive area” so there won’t be any witnesses if I freak out.