Oklahoma closer to offering veterans free oxygen treatment for brain injuries, PTSD

Forty thousand veterans in the state with brain injuries could get help for free, if current legislation continues forward. Army Capt. Matt Smothermon remembers the week after his injury as a blur.

"In the immediate wake of the blast itself it almost felt like I was drunk the entire time," he said.

Smothermon was in a vehicle hit by three IED's in Afghanistan. He was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, and when he came home things did not get better.

"That drove me down into kind of a cycle of depression, I was unable to emotionally relate to people, I didn't really care about a whole lot of things," he said, "it was miserable, it was really miserable. I hated it, I hated every single moment of it."

Wednesday, Rep. John Bennett (R- Sallisaw) holds up a grocery bag full of pill bottles.

"This right here is about 30 to 60 days worth of what someone's gonna get if they have issues relating to traumatic brain injury or PTSD," he said.

Veterans and lawmakers stood behind him, to promote hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which Smothermon found through Oklahoma State University when he hit rock bottom.

"The lights would suddenly come back on, I could focus," he said, remembering his first treatments.

The therapy is not FDA approved. But studies show the 100 percent oxygen chambers trigger the brain's neurons and harness the healing power of oxygen. And advocates say the therapy is better than pills, which can lead to self- treatment and even criminal activity among veterans.

Secretary for Military and Veteran's Affairs Major Gen. (Ret.) Rita Aragon says of the 3,000 veterans incarcerated in Oklahoma, more than 80 percent tried to self-medicate their symptoms.

The bill that passed unanimously through the Senate would offer treatment free to the 40,000 affected veterans in the state.

"The first treatment their photophobia tends to go away, it's that light sensitivity that gives them migraine headaches. By the fifth treatment their headaches are generally under control and by the tenth treatment they can sleep through the night," said Dr. Bill Duncan, the Vice President for Government Affairs for the International Hyperbaric Medical Association.

Duncan also runs a clinic in Oklahoma City that uses hyperbaric therapy to treat veterans, police officers, firefighters and victims of crime for free.

According to a study in the Journal of Neurotrauma, patients recover 15 IQ points on average after treatment. PTSD is reduced by an average of 30 percent, and depression reduced by 51 percent, which leads to a much lower risk of suicide.

Duncan says the program calls for 80 treatments in 150 days. They add up to $25,000 per patient. But he says each injured vet costs the state $60,000 in lost taxes, incarceration and meds.

Even so, the bill does not require the state to pay for treatments. Instead, authors plan to fundraise.

"If the federal government won't take care of our troops like we're supposed to, than we're going to take care of our own people here in Oklahoma," said Bennett.

Smothermon says the treatments gave him a pathway back to his old life.

"It's a living tragedy," he said, "so in a very real way it saved my life, gave me my life back."

Duncan says it's never too late to treat someone. In fact, his oldest patient was 91 years old.

The bill now heads to the state House of Representatives for consideration.