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Brain injury research, treatment taking giant steps forward in ND

FARGO — North Dakota is headed for perhaps its biggest advancement in treating brain injuries ever and may even become a leader nationwide.

Not only has a hyperbaric oxygen therapy clinic in south Fargo seen promising results in treating patients, but the state Legislature has approved more than $300,000 for a pilot study on treating more severe brain injuries with the therapy. On top of that, a rehabilitation hospital that will offer intense residential treatment for those with brain injuries is opening soon in south Fargo.

"I'm so excited," said Lisa Anderson, whose daughter, Hannah, suffered traumatic brain injuries in a near-fatal car crash in 2007.

The Leeds, N.D., woman said she discovered back then that the state was one of two in the nation that offered "absolutely nothing" for treating traumatic brain injuries. The other state was South Dakota. Anderson said there were no medical specialty services or support groups. Since that discovery, she has been testifying before the state Legislature to improve what's offered.

This has been quite a year for her and perhaps for the other 1,200 state residents who are living with severe brain injuries.

Not only has Anderson's daughter had a near-complete turnaround in her life after getting treated at Dr. Daphne Denham's Healing with Hyperbarics clinic in south Fargo, but State Rep. Dick Anderson has led a successful effort to secure funds for a hyperbarics study.

Anderson, whose request was originally turned down in a committee, learned this past week that an appropriations panel has approved the funding.

Anderson, a Republican from the small town of Willow City in far north-central North Dakota, said the study will collect data to convince insurance companies to provide coverage for hyperbaric therapy, which provides extra oxygen to the brain or other parts of the body in a comfortable chamber to help damaged cells recover from inflammation.

He said the therapy would result in better outcomes for patients and save the state a considerable amount of money. State statistics show that state Medicaid paid more than $20 million for services for the 1,200 patients in the past two fiscal years.

"We will lead the nation in brain-injury recovery," he wrote in an email.

On top of that funding, philanthropist and hotel mogul Gary Tharaldson of Fargo supports the oxygen therapy and is in the process of donating about $2.3 million to the Dakota Medical Foundation, which is planning to purchase and manage Denham's clinic.

Cindy Graffeo, chief of staff for the foundation, said the board has not given its final approval to operating the clinic, but she said "there are too many life-changing stories not to look into it."

Denham, who opened the clinic along busy 45th Street last July to go along with her suburban Chicago facility, said about half of the patients are athletes coming in for concussion treatment or even badly sprained ankles.

The other half has been patients with a variety of ailments who are hoping to find an answer or recover more quickly from wounds, bone infections, cancer radiation treatments, diabetes complications and even frostbite, to name a few.

"It's incredible the objective evidence we have showing that giving the brain extra oxygen can improve so many things," Denham said.

Denham hopes the clinic will make even bigger strides in the next year, a vision fueled by that $2 million gift from Tharaldson.

"I don't think he realizes the opportunity for the world that he is providing with the building and chambers paid for," she said.

Because of that funding, the clinic can offer low-cost treatments and continue to do studies like those for acute concussions and moderate to severe brain injuries, she said.

She noted that internationally, accepted treatments also include Alzheimer's, dementia, hearing loss, strokes, Lyme disease, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's Disease to name a few.

A few of those studies she hopes to accomplish one day are replacing opioids or narcotics with the oxygen therapy to "prevent patients from being drug dependent" and on ways to prevent more post-concussion symptoms. They are the costly part of a concussion as it can involve eye care, home schooling with tutors, physical therapy and more. She said the average cost for post-concussion treatments averages about $20,000 with some climbing as high as $100,000 or more.

Mellisa Seitz of Hawley, Minn., who has been attempting to bring hyperbaric therapy to North Dakota since 2010 and worked with Denham, would like to see more research and treatment options for veterans with traumatic brain injuries or post traumatic stress disorders. She became convinced of the therapy when she took a Fargo veteran to Louisiana State University and saw how it helped him with his traumatic brain injury and PTSD. Ever since, she has worked tirelessly with others in Fargo to get the clinic operating.

Seitz and Denham said the state's congressional delegation is planning to soon bring U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie to Fargo to view its successful hospital here, and they also hope to have him stop by the clinic to see what's being done.

The therapy has been around for 300 years, but advancements and acceptance of the therapy has come and gone. There are possible side effects, such as ear popping, then lung concerns for heavy smokers and low blood sugar levels, especially when a diabetic patient is being treated.

Denham said statistics show there are only complications in four out of every 100,000 treatments. "That's an extremely low number and with young athletes, it's even lower," she said.

As for doctors being more accepting of the oxygen therapy, she said they are kind of a "right away group" when looking for outcomes and so the treatment has several times over the years got "kicked to the curb."

She also said the community support that Fargo has been showing is a big boost.

Denham said the clinic can show it's not all about money, "but this is about what's in the best interest of the patient and what it can do overall to improve the quality of health care in a cost effective way."

North Dakota will also gain another advancement in brain injury treatment with the opening of the Cobalt Rehabilitation Hospital that will have 12 of its 42 beds dedicated to physical, occupational and speech therapy for brain injury patients.

CEO Karissa Olson said there have been delays in the opening but that the facility is "fully prepared to open as soon as possible."

It will be the first free-standing rehab facility for traumatic brain injury patients in the state.

For many of the more serious brain injuries caused by car accidents or other tragic events, patients have had to go to such facilities as the Craig Hospital in Denver, Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Omaha or Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul for pediatric patients or Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis for older patients.

Now, many of those same intensive residential therapies will be offered in Fargo, she said. They are planning to serve patients across the state as well as those in western Minnesota and northern South Dakota.

She also said they are hoping for a "successful relationship" with other health care facilities in the area, including the hyperbaric clinic.