The concept of a Hyperbaric Medical Facility for Sydney, sited at the Prince Henry Hospital (PHH), was formulated in the early 1960s by Professor Johnston. His vision was to have a large hyperbaric complex capable of containing a cardio-thoracic operating theatre. At this time the only hyperbaric chambers in Australia were owned by the Navy and these were used exclusively for the treatment of divers.
With a 20,000 dollar grant from the South Sydney Junior Rugby League Club. Ebsray Pumps Pty. Ltd. were commissioned to co-ordinate the construction and installation of the chamber. Ebsray sought advice from Duke University Medical Centre (USA) and the then innovative chamber shell was constructed at Port Kembla in August 1964. Shortly after this the shell was installed on concrete supports at PHH.
Unfortunately the project faltered when its driving force, Professor Johnston, suffered a serious illness. During the period of inactivity that followed the steel shell sat out in the open, slowly accumulating a layer of rust and graffiti. After a few years a building was raised around the chamber to protect it from further deterioration. Further impetus went out of the project when advances in open-heart surgery overtook the concept of the hyperbaric operating theatre for heart surgery.
In November 1968 Dr Unsworth, who was then working with the Royal Navy in England, was recruited to undertake the task of resurrecting the hyperbaric project. He accepted the challenge and subsequently arrived at PHH in early 1969 to commence the task of bringing the chamber on line.
Finally, six years after its’ construction the maiden dive was undertaken on 13 July 1970. Seven months of trials followed before the Hyperbaric Unit was officially opened on 23 February 1971, by Mr J Marks, the chairman of the board of directors of PHH. Five days later the first emergency patient, a carbon monoxide poisoning victim, was treated.
The first diver, a young woman suffering from Air Embolism, was treated on the 22nd of March 1972. The first case of decompression illness was treated on the 27th of September 1976.
Monica Ruth Pring from Kempsey, who started in the P.T.S. on St Valentine’s Day, 14th February 1980 and has spent 6 years as a Supervisor and 2nd in Charge of the Spinal Unit, recounted the miraculous rehabilitation of a spinal injury case-
Eighteen year old Jason Henessy had dived into shallow water at Nelson’s Bay severely fracturing his neck. He suffered instant paralysis and was flown to P.H.H. by helicopter and treated within 12 hours of the accident in the Hyperbaric Chamber. The purpose was to force high pressure oxygen into the spinal cord, hopefully resuscitating damaged blood vessels which if the spinal cord was not severed would be prevented from dying and be given a chance to recover. Jason was in traction for six weeks and astounded us all with his recovery from almost total paralysis to walking with a frame. Associate Professor R. Jones, Director of the Spinal Rehabilitation Centre attributed Jason’s unique recovery of some mobility to early treatment in the Hyperbaric Chamber and good nursing of course.
At this time the high pressure treatment can’t be regarded as a cure Dut it did tip the balance in the recovery or death of the spinal column in Jason’s case. To see Jason walking with his frame on Little Bay Beach was like witnessing a miracle…
With the closure and sale of Prince Henry Hospital, the Hyperbaric Unit ceased operation on the 15th of January 1995. Operations were transferred to the Prince of Wales campus where the unit re-opened on the 11th of March 1996.
Today, after almost 50 years the Hyperbaric Unit continues to offer cutting edge therapies in state of the art facilities to thousands of patients annually.