WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – Service members are used to being in pressure-packed situations, from intense training to conflicts on the battlefield. Those experiences can lead to traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Now, a different kind of pressure can treat those injuries for countless veterans in desperate need of help.

Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment, otherwise known as HBOT, is a therapy where patients intake pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber.

“So, the body is now reacting to this oxygen, and it’s creating the necessary components to reduce our inflammation. It increases your stem cell production so it’s up regulating what we call reparative and regenerative genes,” di Girolamo said. “It’s doing a tremendous amount to help them in their executive function and their sleeping and their headaches and their personalities come back.”

di Girolamo sparked an interest in this treatment at a medical conference a few years ago after hearing about the alarming number of veteran suicides each day.

“They’re really suffering mentally with headaches and their personality essentially was under tremendous stress but getting this hyperbaric oxygen therapy alleviated that,” di Girolamo said. “You saw the return of executive function, the reduction or elimination of headaches, initially, sleeping through the night, all these very important things that help our brain heal,” di Girolamo said.

Studies show the therapy is working. That’s why lawmakers and the Community Foundation of NC East opened the treatment to veterans in 2019, and in 2021, the state started paying for veterans to get HBOT for free.

But the funding doesn’t meet the demand.

With extra money, the Community Foundation of NC East hopes to expand the treatment to veterans in southeastern North Carolina because they say the results are worth the investment.

“Few things in life that are more gratifying than getting a hug from one of the soldiers family members, for changing them, bringing them back to them.”

The treatment

There are two chambers at Extivita, one holds a dozen people and the smaller chamber holds eight people.

Patients are in the chamber for about 90 minutes. It takes 10-15 minutes to get under pressure, and then the chamber stays under pressure for an hour. Think of the pressure as if you were scuba diving 33 feet below the surface. When that hour is up, it takes another 10-15 minutes for the chamber to depressurize.

Experts recommend 40 sessions or treatments and said a person would start to see a change in their first 10 to 20 treatments. A person could do two treatments in one day, but medical professionals recommend waiting about 4-6 hours in between treatments so the high oxygen level in your body can deplete and get back to normal.

“A lot of what happens with the hyperbaric oxygen therapy doesn’t actually happen while you’re in there, that happens after you come out. So, it’s a physiologic effect that occurs after the treatment, and how your body responds to that. That is really the powerful part of it,” di Girolamo said. “So, you get a slightly different effect and maybe we don’t need a pill.”

di Girolamo talked about how the treatment reduces inflammation and the importance of stopping the inflammation.

“If you can stop that inflammation, you can prevent what we call reperfusion injury, it’s sort of the injury after the injury. So, if you have an inflamed brain, and that goes on for a long period of time, imagine what that’s doing. You’re restricting oxygen to the brain. So, now you’re getting some longer-term damage. So, if you can get it right away, then it’s fewer treatments,” di Girolamo said. “And for example, you have a warfighter. He’s been back five years, and he’s got PTSD and it’s debilitating for him. You know, we’ve learned that 40 [treatments] is a good place to start. You know, for me, it’s sort of the simple thing, if you continue to see improvement with the therapy, don’t stop.”

HBOT is also used to treat athletes that might have an injury or someone with the long-lasting effects of a recent COVID diagnosis.

HBOT is FDA approved to treat more than a dozen illnesses or injuries but PTSD and TBI are not on the approved list yet.

For more information about the treatment, click here.


Money is a big question with everything.

This treatment is completely free for veterans, but a prescription for oxygen is required from a medical professional.

It’s estimated that 40 treatments cost about $10,000. This includes food, travel, and hotel costs as many veterans travel from outside the area to receive this therapy.

The state has given the Community Foundation of NC East $250,000 to date, but $200,000 has already been used up.

As funding is running out, the organization is turning to the private sectors in hopes of raising more money to get veterans the treatment they need. Leaders say they won’t turn away any veteran because they know how life-changing this treatment is.

To donate, click here.