Two years ago, Oklahoma National Guard Capt. Matt Smothermon spent months trying to write a single page that would get him back into law school.
The page sat unfinished on his kitchen table for months, he said. The trouble was, the thing he was trying to explain on that page was the thing keeping him from writing it.
“I couldn’t write it,” he said. “I sat down and tried to write it over and over and over and over, and I couldn’t do it.”
Smothermon credits an experimental treatment for his recovery — a treatment that Oklahoma lawmakers are seeking to make available, for free, to any veteran who needs it. But some researchers question the treatment, saying it’s ineffective at best and potentially dangerous at worst.
Proponents tout the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy as a major breakthrough in the treatment of traumatic brain injury. But the therapy, commonly used to treat divers with decompression sickness, hasn’t received FDA approval for the treatment of brain injury. Worse, the FDA warns that patients receiving the therapy are at risk of serious injuries.
Bombs take toll
Smothermon was a platoon leader on a route clearance team in the Oklahoma National Guard’s 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. During deployment, his platoon was exposed to three separate bomb blasts. Smothermon was hospitalized with traumatic brain injury.
When his unit came home, Smothermon hoped he’d make a full recovery and be able to return to law school. During a meeting with the dean of the University of Tulsa law school, the dean told Smothermon he could write a one-page explanation about why he’d been away from school and what his symptoms were, and he’d likely be able to restart school.
It sounded like an easy task, he said, but he couldn’t do it. The symptoms he was supposed to explain kept him from organizing his thoughts enough to focus on the explanation.
Then, Smothermon heard from one of the soldiers in his unit about hyperbaric oxygen therapy. The treatment places the patient in a chamber in which air pressure is raised several times higher than normal, allowing the lungs to gather more oxygen.
After 10 rounds of treatment at a clinic in Tulsa, Smothermon was able to write the single-page explanation and begin the process of getting back into law school. Now a second-year law student, Smothermon credits the therapy with helping him get his life in order.
Senate Bill 1604, creating a fund to make hyperbaric oxygen therapy available for free to veterans with traumatic brain injury, passed both the Senate and the House unanimously.
It would allow veterans to receive the treatment at any licensed and equipped medical facility in the state. The bill also would create a revolving fund to pay for the treatment.
David Cifu, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, conducted a series of studies for the U.S. Department of Defense on the effectiveness of hyperbaric oxygen therapy on traumatic brain injury patients.
The studies divided patients into three groups. One group received hyperbaric oxygen therapy, a second group was placed into a pressurized chamber with no extra oxygen, and a third received normal air.
Cifu said each of those studies showed patients who were given hyperbaric oxygen therapy did show some improvement, but they did no better than patients in the other groups.
Cifu said he suspects the benefits came from taking service members off of their normal duty and placing them in a supportive, nurturing environment.
“Everybody did exactly the same,” Cifu said. “A little R and R helped these people significantly.”
William Duncan, a proponent of hyperbaric oxygen therapy, runs an Oklahoma City-based clinic that offers the treatment. Duncan said his clinic treated a woman who had suffered a head injury in an accident that caused her to lose her hearing. After one treatment, her hearing was restored, he said.
Duncan said Cifu’s research was flawed, and pointed to an Israeli study published in November that suggests the treatment can help improve brain function in traumatic brain injury patients.