A panorama of snow-capped Buffalo and Red Peak mountains in the Gore Range in Colorado stretch over Lake Dillon just beyond a paved, grey bike path reaching toward them in the foreground, running next to green shades of pine trees and shrubs in the valleys with a bench made of fresh, bright wood planks sitting next to the path

Wound Healing at High Altitude: Hyperbaric Therapy, A Patient’s firsthand experience with post-surgical wound healing in Summit County

The nuances of wound healing at high altitude is a topic that has already been explored on this platform (see Eric Meiklejohn’s “Wound Care at Altitude”). Identifying the impact that impaired oxygen delivery can have on healing time, tissue regeneration, and infection rates offers great insight into the roles health care providers can assume to support our high-altitude patients. For this interview, I was able to speak directly with  a Summit County resident who had firsthand experience with these processes.

I’ve heard a bit about your experiences with wound healing at high altitudes I will ask some preliminary questions,. This entire experience was more of a marathon than a sprint. How long have you been living at this altitude, and how old were you at the time of your procedure? I’d lived at high altitude for over twenty-six years before I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was Fifty-three when I had my surgery. I was in great shape, exercising regularly, and eating really well.

Tell me about your procedure: Well, the initial procedure was in January 2018 down in Denver. I had a bilateral mastectomy done to remove the cancerous tissue, and bilateral expanders were inserted during that surgery so that down the line I could have implants placed. Within the first week we started noticing some necrotic changes to my incisions, and that they were not healing well. The expanders were inflated with air, and it was thought that my traveling back to high altitude from Denver could have increased the pressure inside them.  By the end of week one I went back in to see my doctor, who deflated my expanders pretty significantly.

Have you ever been diagnosed with a medical condition that could affect wound healing, such as Diabetes or Hypertension? No. Breast Cancer was my first real medical diagnosis.

Had you ever had surgery while living at this altitude before? And if so, what was the outcome? Yes, I’d had surgery for an umbilical hernia and that went very well. No complications at all, everything healed just fine. I’d also had tendon damage in my right hand after a fall, and I recovered really well after that surgery at this same altitude.

Regarding healing after your mastectomies, describe the anticipated wound healing time and wound care directions. The time estimate for  recovery was four weeks. I was to rest for two weeks, increase activity slightly for the second two weeks with minimal physical therapy, then by the end of that fourth week the projection was that I would be mostly recovered. I was given strict precautions against heavy lifting, restricting arm movements, and not driving. For wound care I was doing daily dressing changes, not submerging the area in water, and applying Silvadene cream twice daily.

Following the removal of the expanders, what was the rest of the healing process like? Over the next two months I cared for my wounds at home. They were open and oozing, and over time the daily dressing changes and medication applications became quite taxing, both physically and emotionally. It took a lot out of me, and really interfered with my day-to-day life…not to mention the pain. On March 9th, 2018 I underwent an incision revision and resection procedure for the necrotic tissue. At that point my breast tissue had manifested itself as far as which parts were healthy and which would die, so they went in and resected the areas that were not viable. On the left side I lost most of the top surface of the breast, including the entire nipple area. Two weeks after that, I had a [chemo therapy] port placed in my arm  so I could begin treatments, but that incision also had a difficult time healing. That eventually led to a one month delay in my chemo therapy.

In March and April the incisions on the right breast eventually healed, but because of all the tissue loss and necrosis on the left side those wounds did not heal. There was still a lot of drainage from that breast and it was mostly still open so I had to keep the bandage on. By early May (after this wound had been open for 5 straight months) my doctor and I started seeing more signs of infection to that breast, so around May 12th of 2018 he called me in for an emergency procedure and I had the expander completely removed from my left breast. I continued chemo and eventually that left side began to heal in the absence of the expander.

During this time, from March until I finished chemo in August, the port site never healed. The whole reason behind having the port placed was so it could heal over and I could go back to a normal life between chemo sessions. But instead I walked around with a bandage for those six months because my port site remained open. I had Her2 positive cancer, so after my six months of chemo I needed to continue taking Herceptin for one additional year. I opted to have the port removed after six months and had an IV placed every three weeks for my treatments. It was very hard on my veins, but I felt I had no choice.

In late August, with the port out and the left expander out, the last of my open wounds really started healing. I started looking at what I could do to help my tissue heal even better- my thought was that when this is all done and I am all well healed I would like to have my expanders placed and inflated again, but I don’t want to have to go backwards through this process. I did all this research, and that’s where I learned about hyperbaric therapy. That changed everything for me.

What did you learn about Hyperbaric therapy, and what was your experience with it? I did a lot of independent research online and came up with two options that I wanted to discuss with my doctor. The first was a topical option for applying oxygen directly to the wound, which was a very complicated and involved process -and the second was hyperbaric therapy.

I discussed this with my oncologist who was very familiar with hyperbaric chamber treatment centers in Denver, and who wrote me a referral to be evaluated at the one in Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center. I was evaluated by their team, showed them all the photos I had been taking throughout this entire ordeal, and they seemed hopeful that they would be able to help me. I really wish I’d gone there sooner.

My plan was to use this to help me recuperate a little bit so I could give the expander one more shot on the left side. After having the left expander placed, the second phase of my plan was to get another course of hyperbaric therapy to aid in recovering from that procedure. It was eventually prescribed and accepted by insurance, who approved 27 hyperbaric sessions following my surgery.

I underwent the left expander placement in February of 2019, observed the same restrictions, and had identical at-home wound care as my initial surgery in January 2018, but with the addition of hyperbaric therapy my results were night and day. The day after surgery I started hyperbaric, and in so much less pain. I was off all pain medications within 48hours. I was able to get out, walk, function in my daily life, and the tissue healed really well. It was amazing! I felt great, had tons of energy, and it was just a completely different experience. It was nothing short of miraculous.

What was your hyperbaric chamber treatment like? It was five days a week in Denver. Being there was for me a huge learning experience. There were people there being treated for diabetic wounds, hearing loss, adjunct therapy for various types of cancer, joint and tendon disease, tissue necrosis, concussions, head trauma, and so many other things. I hadn’t known that this therapy could be utilized in all these different areas.

After your successful left expander placement, how was your transition to breast implants? Months after the left expander was reinserted, I did transition to breast implants (summer 2019) but even then, I insisted on post operative hyperbaric therapy. I was only approved for ten sessions that time, but the results were the same. Rapid healing time, noticeable decrease in pain after starting therapy, and the ability to function throughout the day. Of all the factors that played a role in this process for you, what variable would you most want to adjust? Honestly, I just wish I’d started hyperbaric therapy sooner. If there was a way to get providers who work with high altitude dwellers to recommend hyperbaric treatment as a part of their primary or secondary treatment course, that’s the one thing I would change.Well, I am very happy to know that despite the difficulty you experienced in this process, you are now three years post op, well healed, and satisfied with your results. Thank you again for sharing your story. My pleasure. If my sharing can help someone else find hyperbaric therapy or open them up to alternative methods of treatment sooner so as not to have to experience what I went through in those first few months, then it was all worth it.

Janell Malcolm is a second year Physician Assistant student in the Red Rocks PA Program in Arvada, Co. A Jamaica native, she loves the ocean, tropical fruit, and 100 degree weather. You will likely find her spending her free time with family or reading/re-reading Jane Eyre. Her personal and career goals are geared towards providing adequate medical care to underserved communities. Special interests post graduation: Labor & Delivery, General Surgery.

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