Florida veterans advocate for hyperbaric oxygen therapy for wounded warriors

Published: Feb. 18, 2021 at 12:47 PM CST
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there are at least 185,000 veterans who have been diagnosed with at least one traumatic brain injury (TBI). This type of condition can cause mild symptoms or be extremely debilitating, making every-day life a challenge.

Now there’s a growing community of doctors, researchers and advocates who believe there’s a way to help heal these veterans.

“I could talk - 15 minutes later, I wouldn’t remember who I’d spoken to,” said T. Patt Maney.

Retired brigadier general Patt Maney served in the Army for 36 years. But his life was turned upside down after an IED attack in Afghanistan in 2005. Leading up to the blast, he was on a mission to find drinkable water for the people of Afghanistan and the international forces on the ground.

“Nobody was killed – praise God, but as part of the blast, among other injuries, I suffered traumatic brain injury,” explained Maney.

Maney then battled crushing headaches, struggled with reading comprehension and said he couldn’t even balance a checkbook.

“A very major issue was the short-term memory loss. My wife literally led me around by the hand for most of a year,” said Maney.

He spent nearly 20 months exhausting his options at Walter Reed. Maney says the zombie-like state he lived in reversed once Doctor Eddie Zant, a fellow Army veteran, suggested hyperbaric oxygen therapy. After a steady recovery, Maney found a new normal and now serves in the Florida state legislature.

“I have my mind. And I can sleep. And it’s a wonderful thing. Doctor Zant really gave me a tremendous blessing,” said Maney.

With hyperbaric medicine, patients breathe in pure oxygen in a pressurized environment over a series of sessions. The idea is to increase the oxygen flow over time to heal a wound.

“The brain is what’s been injured, and it directly repairs the damage in the brain,” said Dr. Eddie Zant, a retired Army medical officer. After years as an anesthesiologist, Zant now focuses his time on delivering hyperbaric medicine out of Fort Walton Beach, an area concentrated with veterans and service members at risk of traumatic brain injury.

“We’re trying to help these men and women, and those of us that do that, know that we can. Because I treated a couple hundred veterans or more, and they do fine, and go back to having a fairly normal life,” said Zant.

The FDA recognizes the value of hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) but only for other conditions. The military doesn’t include HBOT as the standard treatment for TBI.

Zant, a Valdosta native, says because HBOT is considered “off-label” use to treat a TBI, insurers or the federal government are not inclined to pick up cost of treatments.

“We have the evidence it works. It’s just hard to change things in the system. They have their way of doing things and it’s slow but it is happening,” said Zant.

Zant has offered this therapy to hundreds of veterans, pro-bono. For this public service, he was inducted into the Florida Veterans’ Hall of Fame.

“I love the military. The military was good to me. And these guys, and ladies, need help. Someone needs to do something for them,” said Zant.

Recently, the state of Florida put forward new funding so Zant and other providers can treat and further study this issue. The data is gathered and then sent to the University of South Florida for review.

Zant, and other advocates of HBOT, hope that if treatment options are advanced for veterans coping with TBI, medical progress could also apply to the millions of Americans suffering with the same condition caused by everyday accidents, car wrecks and sports injuries.

“The brain is injured. Most of the brain cells - they’re not dead - they’re stunned. They’re not functioning properly and to use an analogy: hyperbaric jump-starts them to get them to function properly again,” said Zant.

In response to this report, the Office of the U.S. Air Force Surgeon General released this statement: “At this time the Air Force Medical Service does not recommend hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) to treat traumatic brain injury (TBI). We do continue to use HBOT for other treatments, but the use of HBOT for TBI is an emerging concept and we look forward to seeing more of the medical research that is being done on this topic. We continue to evaluate medical data on treatments for TBI and adjust our practices to ensure the best care for our Airmen and Guardians.”

The Army also weighed in on the concept of HBOT for TBI. “The Army continues to pursue innovative assessment and treatment modalities to ensure the safety and health of Service Members of all military branches. Hyperbaric oxygen treatment (HBOT) is one of many treatment options available to military beneficiaries with a physician referral. More research is needed to determine the impact of HBOT on TBI symptoms,” said Lt. Col. Cecilia Najera Acting Director, Army TBI Program, US Army Office of the Surgeon General.

According to the Department of Defense Health Agency, “Based on findings from four completed DoD trials and the fact that neither the FDA nor professional hyperbaric medicine societies currently endorse the use of HBO2 for mTBI, the DoD does endorse HBO2 as a therapy for mTBI. Accordingly, no policy changes relative to HBO2 treatment of mTBI are indicated at this time.”

A VA spokesperson said, “VA is committed to providing world-class patient-centered, patient-driven healthcare to Veterans. HBOT is not currently recognized as an evidence-based treatment for TBI by medical experts including the premier body of hyperbaric medicine experts, the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medicine Society (UHMS). Since 2017, VA has facilitated a small-scale operational program evaluation to examine the provision of off-label use of HBOT (i.e., not FDA-approved) for PTSD, in a clinical context including identifying necessary resources, barriers, and feasibility for adoption in VA for Veterans with treatment-resistant PTSD. VA providers refer Veterans for evidence-based HBOT treatment when medically indicated. VA recognizes the importance of continuing efforts to better understand the utility of HBOT treatment for Veterans with physical and mental health indications and continues to monitor emerging evidence that supports the provision of whole-health care to Veterans.”

Photojournalist/Editor Tyler Smith and Producer Karen Daborowski contributed to this report.

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