Note: Original article by Linda Hersey. Taken from the “OldNortheast-Downtown St. Pete Patch” , January 13, 2011.
ST PETERSBURG – Oxygen machines hiss and hum in Mark Fowler’s living room, as sick and fragile children lie in portable breathing chambers undergoing an unconventional treatment.
Mark and his wife, Betsy, run Chamber of Hope, a not-for-profit oxygen therapy center, at their St. Petersburg home. They welcome young patients like they are family members, five days a week, 52 weeks a year. People make the pilgrimage from across the U.S. because the oxygen therapy is offered for free.
On a recent day, Mark helps a Miami woman ease her grown grandson’s wheelchair into the Fowler home. Betsy assists a Connecticut father and his 4-year-old child, who emerge from one of the portable oxygen chambers that line the walls of his living room.
Children breathe concentrated levels of oxygen inside hyperbaric chambers to help ease the symptoms of chronic neurological disorders. These are kids with cerebral palsy, autism, attention deficit disorder, traumatic brain injury and other conditions that mainstream medicine cannot fix.
Chamber of Hope does not promise a cure, but Fowler said that the treatments often improve disorders and the quality of life for very sick children. Children gain skills and capabilities their care givers thought were not possible. Sometimes they recover.
“Many times parents are desperate and have exhausted the medical field trying to find a solution for their child,” said long-time volunteer Hardy Bryan. “We have a proven track record. I don’t know of a single family who has come to us who is not pleased and even overjoyed that they did.”
Adults with debilitating strokes and Alzheimer’s disease also can use the chambers, but they take their turn in line, after the children’s needs are met and appointments filled.
“I can’t say no,” says Fowler, whose own grandson has cerebral palsy.
The all-volunteer nonprofit has been managed at the Fowler home since 2005. But now a gift from an anonymous donor will enable Chamber of Hope to move into its owns quarters for the first time. The new location is a former shipping store in the Coquina Key Plaza; plans are to open in late February or March.
Fowler says the new location will enable Chamber of Hope to expand services. But the nonprofit also will have to focus more on fundraising to cover costs. The volunteer staff will need to raise money to pay for day-to-day operations – utility bills, maintenance and insurance – projected to be $10,000 per month.
The nonprofit relies solely on donations. Hyperbaric oxygen chambers are available for chronically ill patients in other states, costing $400 to $1,200 per hour. But the St. Petersburg operation is the only one that is free to patients. Its goal and mission is to stay that way.
Jill Putman of St. Petersburg said she hopes to help with fund-raising to show her thanks for getting treatment for her 3-year-old daughter, Sophia, who has autism.
“If you can donate money, then you are encouraged to do it,” said Putman, a single mother. “My financial situation is tight. I haven’t seen anything like this elsewhere that is free of charge.” Putman said her daughter has had eight of 40 hour-long treatments, which will be done over eight weeks.
Putman learned about Chamber of Hope through a nurse who works with autistic children and has an autistic child of her own. Families often hear about the services by word of mouth, not recommendations from family doctors or specialists.
Hyperbaric oxygen treatments are approved by the Food and Drug Administration for decompression sickness and carbon monoxide poisoning. Chamber of Hope treats “off-label” disorders not covered by medical insurance.
Putman already is a convert, though she was told not to expect results immediately. Sophia is identifying more objects with words, Putman said, and speaking more clearly.
Chamber of Hope is well-established in St. Petersburg, and has treated thousands of children over the years. It receives help from some mainstream local charities, including the Northeast Exchange Club, which sponsors the annual Rib Fest in downtown St. Petersburg.
On Feb. 12, the Woman’s Service League will hold its 61st annual fashion promenade at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, with proceeds benefiting the [Chamber of Hope]…
Chamber of Hope accepts individual donations through PayPal on its website, and encourages charitable givers to sponsor a child in need of treatment. A donation of $250 enables a child to receive 40 one-hour sessions. Sponsors can follow a child’s progress through treatment, and sometimes arrangements are made for a meeting.
“There is a satisfaction and in many cases a thrill to see how we are helping these children and their care givers,” said Bryan, who played a key role in locating the new center. “My hope is that we can raise the money to sustain our operation and add two more chambers for a total of eight.”