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Article by Breanne Hill — Photos by Megan Parks

Equine Sports Medicine & Surgery’s Critical Care Program uses the latest technology to battle the toughest health problems, and recent advances in the use of oxygen therapy to aid the healing process has made the hyperbaric chamber one of ESMS’s most important pieces of technology.

Sherman the Clydesdale was transported from his home in Louisiana to ESMS for a hoof ailment. Shedding his outer hoof wall, the 19-year-old gentle giant was prescribed a series of treatments in ESMS’s hyperbaric chamber.

Using oxygen as its secret weapon, the hyperbaric chamber is a giant cylinder in which horses are placed for timed therapy sessions. While the horse relaxes in the chamber’s stall-like environment, the barometric pressure within the cylinder is increased, causing oxygen to concentrate in the horse’s blood and tissues.

Sherman was put into the chamber in hopes that the oxygen would promote the quick regeneration of the layers of the hoof—and it worked.

The hyperbaric chamber’s oxygenated treatment is meant to cause the rapid healing of such health maladies as open wounds, infections and respiratory diseases.

Dr. Fairfield Bain, DVM, MBA, Dip., ACVIM, ACVP, ACVECC, points out that ESMS has even used the chamber to treat Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage, or bleeding in the lungs, in race and barrel horses.

“This is not a machine that we just set up for routine maintenance or anybody can come in here and request to use,” Bain stresses. “This is meant to treat horses that have diagnosed problems.”

Oxygen therapy first became popular in the horse industry approximately 10 years ago, when Thoroughbred caretakers began using it to treat joint and bone infections in high-dollar foals.

hb chamberThe theory behind the chamber is, of course, that oxygen is a healing agent. In compromised areas of the body, such as those that are infected or diseased, levels of oxygen are usually low thanks to damaged blood vessels and irregular blood flow. The oxygen chamber forces a horse to breathe 100 percent oxygen, which promotes blood flow and enhances the effectiveness of growth hormones and some antibiotics—all of which contribute to faster healing.

Because the hyperbaric chamber is used regularly to treat pneumonia, it was only a short jump for doctors to use it in Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhaging cases. Although it has yet to be proven if oxygen therapy can ultimately cure a horse and keep it from bleeding in its lungs in the future, the chamber has appeared to be effective in cleaning the lung tissue of horses that have been bleeding and temporarily eliminating any bacterial problems in the lungs that have arisen from the problem.

“When it comes to Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhaging, we might treat after they run,” Bain described, “or we might prescribe maintenance treatments.”

Whether conducting maintenance or treatment on an animal, one thing is certain: these medical professionals do not take the running of the high-powered chamber lightly.

“We are unusual in that every person who runs this machine has been certified to run it,” Bain said. “Dealing with this kind of pressure and oxygen can be a dangerous thing, so we make every effort to make the environment as safe as possible.”

Nowhere in the hospital is the modern lean of technology more obvious than in the spaceship-like silhouette of the hyperbaric chamber’s oxygen storage tank and “stall” area. But even when dealing with this modern device, the doctors of ESMS insist that it is their tried-and-true instincts and bedside manner that make the real difference.

“We’re very proud of everything we have here,” Bain said. “But we know, in the end, it all comes back to making sure the horse is getting the best care, whether that’s through using some of this equipment or by applying some bandages and TLC.”

That means everything eventually comes back to Bain’s early morning phone calls and his calm reassurance that his patients are receiving the best care that can be given.

“A lot of hospitals probably don’t want to bother with a critical care unit because it isn’t always in-and-out care,” Bain said. “We’re dealing with sick horses here, but I think we feel like we’re supposed to be doing this. This is where we’re needed.”

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