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In 2004, Dr. Paul Claus finally convinced Mayo Clinic leadership to make the leap into hyperbaric healing. While the facility has treated more than 1,200 high-risk patients, it remains a mysterious, obscure high-tech healing device most aren't even aware exists.

The campaign for approval was lengthy and the learning curve took years after officially getting the green light, but Claus and his team now are approaching the 10-year anniversary of operating the Australian-built, triple-lock hyperbaric chamber in downtown Rochester.

For all its bells and whistles — and success stories — Harmony farmer Roger McCabe admits being flabbergasted last fall when he was referred to the Hyperbaric and Altitude Medicine Program.

McCabe, 75, survived 37 rounds of radiation to treat his prostate cancer, only to experience heavy bleeding from the tip of his penis. He spent two weeks in an Iowa hospital, where three attempts to cauterize the issue provided only short-term relief.

Upon being admitted to Mayo in October 2016, he was sent to Dr. Claus and introduced to hyperbaric therapy.

"I was at a point where I'd try anything, but I thought it was kind of weird," McCabe said. "I'd never been through it before and I'd never even heard of it before. They explained it wasn't nothing to be afraid of, but I was very curious."

Promoting growth

After 40 straight days of treatment and a healthy outcome, McCabe became a believer — but in what, exactly?

In the most basic sense, patients breathe oxygen at a higher pressure than normal to promote healing. Mayo's triple-lock chamber can hold up to 12 patients per "dive." Healing typically begins after 14 days of continuous treatment.

Hyperbaric healing was derived from deep-sea diving, where oxygen is used to decompress divers who had absorbed too much nitrogen. Dr. Claus says the process "triggers the body's response to produce new structure, new blood vessels, new connective tissue and to promote healing." New blood vessels more efficiently deliver white blood cells to areas with low circulation, helping to fight infection.

The process especially is effective for treating diabetic wounds, gas embolisms, carbon monoxide poisoning and radiation injuries from cancer treatments, similar to McCabe's recent injury. While Mayo was a relative late adopter of a hyperbaric program — about 2,500 now exist across the country, including at Olmsted Medical Center — it's one of just a few dozen across the U.S. that has critical care capacity.

Mayo's program has treated more than 1,200 patients since opening in early 2008, with annual growth averaging 5 to 10 percent. It's one of about 200 accredited programs and twice has been selected for distinction. The U.S. military has used the facility for research and it also helped Boeing develop an improved oxygen mask for its planes.

Space is the issue

Claus said those numbers justified his persistent campaign to create the program, which now employs five physicians, four technicians and 24 support staff who all have received specialized training. Between approval and opening, Claus completed a one-year fellowship in 2004 and spent another two years traveling across the globe to observe and learn about hyperbaric healing.

"It's not like a car you just drive off the showroom," Claus said of creating the program and the specialized chamber. "Medicine is a learning curve. We were fortunate we had done our homework because there really is a patient need. That was one of my big anxieties … but we really did hit the ground running with a robust patient need."

Claus' current facility is tucked away in Mayo's downtown campus, conveniently located just a few feet from a drop-off terminal. That allows ailing patients to be wheeled right in to the hyperbaric chamber.

However, it's a facility Claus believes would be better suited elsewhere.

Since most hyperbaric patients are transferred down from Saint Marys Hospital, he believes it would make sense to relocate the facility. Nothing has been announced formally to that effect, but Mayo did start a $217 million expansion this spring that would add three floors during the next five years at Saint Marys.

Mayo officials previously have said the new 150,000 square feet will allow for expansion in a variety of areas, including surgical facilities.

"Since we predominantly support the surgical practice, the hope would be to relocate (to Saint Marys)," Claus said. "Space is always the biggest issue. Part of that equation is the willingness to make space. You can always go up."

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