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Territory Can't Treat Sick Divers


March 22, 2005 – The hyperbaric chamber at Roy L. Schneider Hospital has been down for "a couple of months" now, but repairs are on the way.
Daryl Smalls, vice-president of facilities management and capital developments at the hospital, said Tuesday afternoon that parts to fix the machine had arrived that morning.
Smalls said he's finalizing arrangements for mechanics from the Miami-based repair company, CompAire, to fix the chamber. He said the parts cost $7,247, and he estimated that the entire repair job, including labor, will cost about $12,000.
The repair can't come too soon, according to two people involved with the hyperbaric chamber.
Dr. David Weisher, the St. Thomas neurologist in charge of chamber operations, is one of those concerned. "Every time, I hear this week or next," Weisher said Monday.
Steve Prosterman, a St. Thomas diver who said he is on call to run the hyperbaric chamber, said he's heard for a month that the repairs are on the way.
Hyperbaric chambers are used to treat people with non-healing wounds and carbon monoxide poisoning, but are probably best known for their use in treating divers suffering decompression sickness, also called the bends. Decompression sickness is extremely painful and can cause serious medical problems, even death.
The St. Thomas chamber is the only one in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands.
Hospital chief executive officer Rodney Miller said the hyperbaric chamber has two compressors, and that one was already on the fritz when the second one went down. He said the machine is at least 13 years old, if not older.
Miller said he's working on the donation of a second hyperbaric chamber. With two chambers on line, the hospital would have a back up. Miller said that when details of the donation are final, he will make an announcement.
Meanwhile, Weisher said there's a growing backlog of people who need hyperbaric treatment. Though he did not say how many were waiting for treatment, Weisher did say that people aren't calling for appointments because word is out that the chamber is broken.
Weisher said people with the bends are currently being flown by helicopter to a decompression chamber in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Prosterman said the St. Thomas chamber averages one or two bent divers a month, adding that most cases involve divers who did not follow safety rules. "We get repeat customers. We've had people here four or five times," he said.
Bruce Pachta, who owns Dive In at Sapphire Beach Resort, said he hasn't had a bent diver during his 18 years in the business, but said knowing that he can't rely on the island's hyperbaric chamber is a concern.

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