Hawaii’s only public hyperbaric center used to treat sick scuba divers resumed operations last week.

The University of Hawaii’s Hyperbaric Treatment Center closed in October following the departure of its last doctor.

The closure prompted divers at the university and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to postpone some deep research dives. It’s estimated that 5 percent of Hawaii divers are researchers.

UH’s dive community was notified last week that the center was reopening, said UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl.

Two employees at the UH Hyperbaric Treatment Center monitor a treatment session before the facility closed. Screenshot: John A. Burns School of Medicine Website

Nine physicians, including new interim director Susan Steinemann, were recruited to reopen the center, which now has of 12 employees. Two of those doctors had worked for the center before it closed, said Meisenzahl.

The doctors have completed a hyperbaric certification course. Some work full-time, others part-time and some are just on-call, he said.

Months before the facility shut down, a complaint obtained by Civil Beat showed some center doctors were worried about patient safety, insufficient resources and “a lack of any coherent strategic planning or direction.”

UH said the center had an excellent safety record and the complaint stemmed from philosophical differences in how the center should operate. Just five patient incidents over 25,000 treatments were reported, Meisenzahl said.

The center’s services are available 24 hours per day, seven days a week.

No appointments have been scheduled yet since the reopening, but doctors are consulting with patients, Meisenzahl said. The university is also working to come up with a business plan to ensure financial stability.

Most patients receive therapy for health problems such as diabetes-related wounds or radiation injury.

In emergencies, the center treats divers with decompression sickness, commonly known as “bends.” The illness occurs when divers surface after being in a pressurized underwater environment. Bends can result even when proper safety protocols are observed.

NOAA scientist Brian Hauk and Bishop Museum scientist Richard Pyle descend to a reef at 300 feet on Pioneer Bank in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. NOAA and Robert Whitton/Bishop Museum

Symptoms range from pain to paralysis and are caused by gas bubbles, such as nitrogen or helium, in a diver’s tissue.

During treatment, patients breathe pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber. This shrinks the bubbles, allowing them to pass from the body.

The treatment of divers for bends requires specialized, multi-chamber machines to allow doctors to intervene if necessary.

The U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have jyperbaric chambers in Hawaii that can treat decompression sickness, but aren’t always readily available. Navy members are given preference for their chambers and one of NOAA’s machines is kept at sea to treat divers remotely.

That’s why the state opened the Hyperbaric Treatment Center in 1983 under former Gov. George Ariyoshi.

Renovations for the center and its 40-year-old chamber are still planned for this year, thanks to a $1.5 million appropriation from the Legislature. UH recently spent $60,000 on new equipment.

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