A STUDENT once legally blind can now see well enough to drive a car -- thanks to a decompression chamber used to treat divers suffering from 'the bends'.
Eric Lokko from Leixlip, Co Kildare, was on the point of applying for a guide dog when the revolutionary treatment for his hereditary eye condition began to turn his life around.
The first-year science student was just a 12-year-old schoolboy when he began to lose his sight.
"My mam started noticing I couldn't see the television. I was right on top of the television trying to see it," he said.
At the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital in Dublin, a series of tests diagnosed a hereditary condition called Leber's optic neuropathy -- a condition that leads to a loss of central vision as the eyes' retinal cells degenerate.
His eye specialist, Professor Lorraine Cassidy, sent him to the privately run National Hyperbaric Centre, near Jervis Street in Dublin, at the age of 14.
Eric received hyperbaric oxygen therapy in the chamber for an hour at a time, using a method similar to that used to treat divers suffering from decompression sickness after a diving accident.
A face mask delivers oxygen to a patient's lungs while the increased pressure inside the chamber allows more of the gas into the body's tissues.
"My mam had the papers and everything for the guide dog just before we started coming to the chambers," he said.
However, by the age of 16 his eyesight had improved to the extent that he qualified for a moped licence, and he is now driving a car.
"One eye is still coming back, it was just a slower process than the other one. It is a slow process but it is better than being blind," he said.
Eric was one of the first sent for the treatment by eye specialists. However, more students with the same condition were sent after the results became clear. He now comes in to use the chamber once a week.
Among the well-known sports stars who have used hyperbaric oxygen therapy to help speed up recovery from injuries are footballer Wayne Rooney and Irish rugby star Brian O'Driscoll.
Des Quigley, who set up the National Hyperbaric Centre, with his wife Ali, said they treat around 30 people a day -- with most of these repeat visitors.
He said the most common conditions treated are non-healing wounds on diabetics, radiation damage from cancer treatments and ulcers.
Around a third of those visiting the chambers are referred by HSE hospitals, mainly from St James's, the Mater, Beaumont, St Luke's and St Vincent's.
Private patients not referred by hospitals pay €100 per treatment, or €50 for students and pensioners.
- Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves sitting in a sealed chamber and breathing pure oxygen through a mask. The air pressure is slowly increased, driving blood oxygen levels up, helping heal damaged tissue.
- People often experience earache -- similar to that felt on an aeroplane. Swallowing can relieve this.
- For therapeutic treatments, the pressure is increased to the equivalent of going 10m under water. l It is more commonly used to treat decompression sickness (the bends) in divers.
- The therapy is also used to treat diabetics with non-healing ulcers who may be at risk of losing toes, feet or limbs; carbon monoxide poisoning; and serious burns.