By JOHN ROBERTSON
People in Shetland with multiple sclerosis can now use deep sea diving technology to ease their symptoms and hopefully make life a bit better. A converted decompression chamber in Lerwick which has been out of commission for four years has been updated and brought back into use for sufferers of the disease and a new team of volunteer operators has been signed up.
The Shetland Hyperbaric Therapy Unit is tucked away in an unassuming small building across from Lerwick Power Station, near where Chris Hodge had his warehouse store. It has been there since the 1980s when the beneficial effects of inhaling pure oxygen under pressure was a new discovery for MS sufferers. There are about 60 hyperbaric centres around the UK for MS therapy.
The centre ran for many years in a community where about one in every 250 people is affected by the disease – twice the rate found on the Scottish mainland – which gives Shetland and Orkney the unenviable claim of having the highest rate of MS in the world.
About four years ago the chamber closed after it was required to be brought up to new safety standards. The task faced by the Shetland (Minnie Wilson) MS Society was greatly helped by all the voluntary effort, particularly from Eddie Couper and his staff from C&R Diving.
An official reopening is planned for a few weeks’ time which, if it comes together as hoped, will be an event not to miss. In the meantime the group is keen to get started and the first users are expected over the next couple of weeks.
They first have to go through an induction programme, which takes up every day for two weeks, and then the once-a-week therapy begins, lasting up to two hours of which one hour involves breathing oxygen under pressure. The heavy steel circular chamber in which users sit is very confined but can take up to six people at a time. Users wear what they call a bib to inhale oxygen from, which looks like the kind of mask pilots used to wear.
Centre manager Gordon Dargie, the retired teacher and Shetland College boss, admitted that sitting in the chamber and being subjected to pressure was not to everybody’s liking but for most it was worth the effort. Some users feel the benefits very quickly, he said, while others notice them more gradually. A few possibly will not experience any benefit.
According to research, users can gain by experiencing less fatigue, attaining better balance and mobility, improving their senses and possibly easing speech problems.
For anyone wanting to make use of the centre who does not have transport the local MS society may be able to help out because it has its own vehicle to pick people up from all round Shetland for trips to the centre. Access to the building is wheelchair-friendly although squeezing into the chamber is less easy.
Mr Dargie is one of six people now qualified to do decompression and they are allowed to train others in the techniques to ensure that plenty helpers are available. The rest of the team is Ian Jamieson, Bobby Hunter, John Hunter from Weisdale, Robbie Tulloch and Bob Spanswick. Anyone interested in using the unit or volunteering to help run it can get in touch with Mr Dargie on Hamnavoe 859 376.