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Hyperbaric chamber therapy draws hopeful devotees to a St. Petersburg home

Lainie Armstrong, 37, of Wichita, Kan., and son Chance, 2, lie in a chamber Thursday in the St. Petersburg home of Mark Fowler, who dispenses treatment.

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times

Lainie Armstrong, 37, of Wichita, Kan., and son Chance, 2, lie in a chamber Thursday in the St. Petersburg home of Mark Fowler, who dispenses treatment.

ST. PETERSBURG

Five mornings a week, the sick and injured make a pilgrimage to the living room of a lighting fixture salesman.

Babies, shaken, nearly drowned or robbed of air at birth. Men with macular degeneration. Women who have suffered strokes.

They travel from Bosnia and Canada, Kansas and New York, Tampa and New Port Richey to drink in the air from a pair of hyperbaric chambers parked beside a tan leather couch.

A grandmother with pulmonary hypertension sits in one chamber, cradling a grandson born too early. In another, a stepfather with heart problems holds a baby shaken by her biological father.

There are no doctors here. Some people are here against doctor's orders. But it's free, and talk of tiny miracles spill out as parents wait to enter the chambers with their sick children.

The mother of a shaken baby tells how, after two treatments, her daughter's clenched fists opened. A man whose eyesight was almost gone says he can see.

Mark Fowler runs this hyperbaric operation out of his home. He is a prophet in Selama Grotto, a Masonic organization similar to the Shriners that tries to help children with cerebral palsy. His grandson has cerebral palsy.

"I'd think within 70 to 90 treatments, her seizures will stop," Fowler tells the father of a 2-year-old girl with seizures. "That's just a guess. I can't promise you anything, but I can promise you that she'll be better. Everyone who comes here has a better quality of life. And seizures are almost always a walk in the park."

• • •

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy has been around for centuries but it was most commonly used for diving injuries. The Food and Drug Administration now approves of its use for 14 different conditions, from gangrene to cyanide poisoning.

But many doctors prescribe it for "off-label" conditions, such as cerebral palsy, cancer, strokes and multiple sclerosis, to the chagrin of others in the medical community who don't think it's been studied enough.

Dr. Allan Spiegel is one of the believers. The neurologist has a steel hyperbaric chamber at his clinic in Palm Harbor. Hospitals typically have this type of chamber, which cost $100,000 to $200,000 and reach higher pressures levels.

"We've had people with strokes nine to 10 years out, who were unable to move their arms and legs, get up and walk," Spiegel said. "We've had people with no vision at all gain their vision."

But the treatments can be expensive, $200 to $500 an hour in a clinic, and as much as $1,500 in a hospital. With insurance companies not covering many of the treatments, many people are turning to portable polyethelene chambers like the ones in Fowler's living room, which can run about $20,000 apiece.

Dr. Paul Harch, a board-certified hyperbaric and emergency medical physician with a practice in New Orleans and Chicago, said an estimated 6,000 portable chambers are in living rooms and clinics around the country. Football players use them after games. Some movie stars have them. They are typically low pressure and can't be elevated beyond four pounds of air per square inch.

"You need a prescription (to get a chamber)," said Harch, author of The Oxygen Revolution, "but there's a real underground market for them."

• • •

When Fowler is not managing the constant flow of people in his living room, he travels the state selling decorative lighting fixtures and home accessories to retail stores.

His daughter, Shannon Fowler, 33, takes over when he's gone.

Their household is not unlike many others. Shannon gets her three kids ready in the morning. She takes her son, Cyriz, who has cerebral palsy, to the bus stop in his wheelchair just as the first people arrive to use the chamber.

Selama Grotto, the St. Petersburg chapter of the Grottos, bought the first portable hyperbaric chamber six years ago for $21,000.

Cyriz, now 7, was one of the first to use it. At the time, his seizures came three a minute. Within weeks of using the chamber they disappeared, and he began to eat without his feeding tube for the first time.

Fowler was a member of the organization at the time and today is in charge of members in an area that covers roughly the lower half of Pinellas County.

Back then, Selama Grotto prophets transported the chamber from home to home for weeks at a time. But Fowler soon realized that more children could be treated if they came to him.

More chambers followed, a second in his living room, one in the home of a Tampa couple with an autistic child who had seizures, another in Pinellas Park for stroke victims.

A white board in Fowler's office keeps the hourly schedule of both hyperbaric chambers in his Lakewood Estates home. Sometimes the family sees as many as 16 people a day.

The first to arrive one day recently was Lorelei, a child from Rome, N.Y., shaken at birth by her biological father. The 5-year-old's feet were stiff as her mother's boyfriend plucked her out of her stroller and entered the chamber through a zipper at the top.

It was her 31st time in the chamber, and her mother, Renee Morgan, has noticed improvement.

Lorelei is happier, and her clenched fists have relaxed. She hasn't thrown up once, and she can sit on her mother's hip. She started eating spoonfuls of applesauce for the first time.

"She's able to move herself around a little bit," said Morgan, 22, who stayed at Ronald McDonald House for the month she was here. "Before, she'd lay there all day. For us that's a really big step."

• • •

Inside the hyperbaric chamber, a boy named Chance nestles in the arms of his mother, Lainie Armstrong. Her black T-shirt says: HEROES CAN BE SMALL.

Chance, 2, clutches a tiny stuffed lamb and squirms. As the pressure inside the chamber builds to about four pounds of air per square inch, Chance's little ears begin to pop — about the equivalent of ascending in an airplane. But he's used to it.

"The first few times, he cried really bad," says Armstrong, 37, as Chance peers out of a side porthole. "So we would back (the pressure) off and not do it so quickly, and after four or five times we had no problems."

She tries to put a tiny mask on him to pump oxygen-rich air into his lungs, the equivalent of receiving about 80 percent pure oxygen. He pushes it away.

Finally, he lays his head on her thigh, his eyelashes flutter and he's asleep. She places the mask on his face and gazes at him.

"I'd do anything within reason for Chance," she says. "I jokingly say if someone said to put butterfly wings on his forehead every day for two weeks, I'd do it."

Chance was born three months premature, at 1 pound, 15 ounces. Doctors told Armstrong he would likely be mentally retarded, have no use of his arms and have problems with his heart, lungs and kidneys.

The single mother, who had Chance by artificial insemination, has tried everything to help him catch up. Back home near Wichita, Kan., where they live with her mother, she gave up her job as a coordinator of high school special-education programs after he was born. She drives Chance to nine different therapies a week.

The boy has been painting acrylics with his fingers and toes since he was a year old. In March, he held his first gallery opening and sold 80 acrylics, raising $6,000 to get to Fowler's house in St. Petersburg for a month's worth of free hyperbaric therapy.

Now days away from leaving, Armstrong can't say enough about the chamber. The boy who had never slept through the night has done so five times since he arrived in St. Petersburg. His legs seem sturdier, and he can stand up and take a step. And he's talking more, even in four-word sentences, something he'd never done before.

Could the success be Chance's natural development?

No, says Armstrong. It's as if his development was suddenly fast-forwarded during the past few weeks. It's been so successful, she's trying to figure out how to get a chamber for their home back in Kansas.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8640.

>>FAST FACTS

What's next

Selama Grotto is trying to raise $10-million for a hyperbaric oxygen center for children in St. Petersburg. The center would have 12 hospital-grade chambers and treat the indigent for free. If Selama Grotto can raise the money, Dr. Paul Harch, the hyperbaric medicine researcher, has agreed to come be medical director of the center.

Hyperbaric chamber therapy draws hopeful devotees to a St. Petersburg home 05/31/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 9, 2008 10:21am]
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