Health

Oxygen treatment a breath of fresh air for north west and Donegal

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy has a proven track record in supporting the treatment of a wide range of conditions, from broken bones and back pain to cancer and MS. Now, a charity offering the therapy from a specialist facility in Carrickmore, Co Tyrone has been set up. Mairead Holland finds out more.

Mairead Holland

Venita Nestor of the North West Oxygen Centre, Carrickmore, Co Tyrone. Picture by Mal McCann.

ON NEW Year's Eve 2018, Co Tyrone woman Venita Nestor realised she had to take drastic action.

Stricken by severe nerve pain in her legs and feet, she feared a return of the neurological condition that had left her confined to a wheelchair 13 years previously.

"When I put my feet on the ground, I was back all those years," she recalls. "I knew I needed to do something that was totally different to anything I had done before, something outside the box."

Aged 44, Venita had given birth to her fourth child, Leo, just six months previously.

However, she developed complications afterwards, resulting in sepsis, which she believes put her body under extra strain and left her vulnerable.

"My husband James and I were both very scared - and so were my mum and dad - that I was going to end up back in the wheelchair again," she says.

"I was in it for two years and had to learn to walk again. I missed a lot of time with the last baby and it was a very difficult three years of his life so I didn't want to have that for Leo.

"A friend had mentioned oxygen to me before this. It was something I hadn't tried, so I researched it and started a block of treatments, even though it was a six-hour round trip four or five times a week."

Venita, who is a native of Donegal but lives in Omagh, found the treatments so transformative that she took the decision to set up an oxygen centre in the north west.

There are already three other charities offering the treatment in Northern Ireland, but none in that area.

The North West Oxygen Centre, a non-profit making organisation, opened its doors in Carrickmore in July and is currently awaiting charitable status.

It provides Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment (HBOT) in two purpose-built chambers, with clients breathing pure oxygen through a mask.

"We made a decision to buy single chambers, a lie down one and a sit-in one, to give people privacy and because of Covid," explains Venita.

"We have a trained member of staff who goes in with you. A lot of people fall asleep or read a book. It's lovely, actually. It feels like a cocoon."

Oxygen therapy is a natural treatment which is used to treat many conditions and entails the delivery of increased levels of oxygen, at greater than atmospheric pressure, for between 60 to 90 minutes.

Oxygen plays a key role in the repair of damaged cells, but often the flow is blocked and the healing process takes much longer.

New research shows that increased oxygen flow in the blood can result in the awakening of dormant cells in the brain and the creation of new ones.

Venita says people who benefit from the therapy can have a wide range of ailments and conditions including multiple sclerosis (MS), fibromyalgia, sports injuries, cancer, skin disorders, bone breaks and long Covid.

Venita Nestor of the North West Oxygen Centre, Carrickmore, Co Tyrone. Picture by Mal McCann.

As well as having suffered from the neurological disease, Venita also had a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome and bone thinning, the combination of which left her suffering from severe pain and inflammation all over her body.

However, she says that what she achieved from the oxygen was "just phenomenal".

"On the fourth or fifth trip I could do the whole two-hour drive without stopping. Before that I was stopping for 20 minutes to half an hour to get out of the car and stretch because of the back pain," she says.

"Even driving to see my mum, a 50-minute journey, I would have had to get out of the car and stretch as the pain from my neck was going into my hands.

"I was advised to do a block of 20 treatments but I did 23 because it worked for me. After maybe the 10th session, I really got clarity in my thoughts and the heaviness in my head wasn't there. I felt lighter and more free.

"There was a drastic difference in the pain. The inflammation and swelling had gone and I was able to wear my rings again. I just had a lot more energy and a spring in my step."

It was during the treatments that Venita found herself talking to other people who had found them not just beneficial but, in some cases, life-changing.

"I saw so many miracles in the time I was there and heard so much about other people's journeys," she says.

"There was one fella who had come off his bike in Portugal - he's a fitness instructor - and had broken his ankle. He was back training within three or four weeks and his doctors couldn't get over it."

Driving to and from the sessions also gave Venita plenty of time to think.

"I was lucky being able to travel as my husband was working from home and was there for the children, but not everybody can do that," she says.

"The north west and Donegal didn't have this type of facility so it was a no-brainer for me. It was suggested I could set it up as a business but I wanted it to be for everybody, not a rich person's treatment like it is in lots of countries.

"I spent about six months researching it and putting a committee together. Becoming a charity means we can fundraise and keep the prices low."

Venita is passionate about spreading awareness of the benefits of oxygen treatment.

"A lot of people don't understand it - they hear oxygen and they think masks, hospitals. This is not the same, this is pressurised oxygen that is getting to parts of your body it wouldn't normally get to," she explains.

"This treatment has been there for years. It goes back to deep sea diving. When the divers were coming back up out of the water they were getting very ill, so the oxygen stopped that.

"The treatment can really transform life for people with cancer and multiple sclerosis, those with bone breaks, even addictions, so many things.

"If you break a bone in a particular spot, the oxygenated blood doesn't get pumped to that spot. When you go under that pressure, it allows the oxygenated blood to get pumped to every part of your body, so it absolutely cuts down healing time."

Paula Rafferty of the North West Oxygen Centre, Carrickmore, Co Tyrone. Picture by Mal McCann.

Venita stresses that the treatment is not about giving people false hope, but "giving people all the hope in the world".

"For instance, we're not saying it cures cancer but it helps support the treatment of cancer. The oxygen is rejuvenating cells as opposed to killing them off," she says.

On its website, Macmillan Cancer Support includes a section on hyperbaric oxygen treatment, and the positive results it can have for people suffering from the long-term side effects of radiotherapy and problems with skin grafts or flaps.

The MS Society also says some people with the condition find it helpful for managing bladder and fatigue symptoms.

The centre opens from Tuesday to Saturday and the price for a session is £30, which the centre strives to keep low by fundraising and donations.

Venita and her staff are all fully trained in HBOT and are always on the look-out for volunteers.

Anyone availing of the treatment also requires permission from the centre's doctor or their own, although Venita points out that there are very few people for whom it is not suitable.

:: northwestoxygencentre.com.

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