FARGO — After a series of four concussions in just two years, 13-year-old Payton Rude's health wasn't improving. The repeated head injuries gave him severe headaches and made it tough to focus.
"Schoolwork, anything on the computer was hard and challenging to do," Rude said. "The pounding headaches each day . . . I got sick of it."
The eighth grader said the complications started to make him feel depressed.
"I saw him with no will or desire to do anything anymore, tired, asleep in bed, not able to function," said Nicole Rude, Payton's mother.
Payton slept a lot. Lights bothered him and nothing seemed to help.
Looking for anything that might improve his condition, Nicole brought her son to Healing with Hyperbarics, a south Fargo clinic that treats patients in pressurized chambers filled with pure oxygen.
Known as hyperbaric oxygen therapy, or HBOT, the treatment is designed to speed up recovery from injuries by oxygenating tissue to increase blood flow. The therapy has been used to treat victims of carbon monoxide poisoning and the bends, a potentially deadly decompression sickness experienced by divers who resurface from great depths.
Proponents like clinic founder Dr. Daphne Denham and many of her patients say the therapy can relieve sufferers of traumatic brain injuries from chronic head pain and brain fog, though it has not yet been scientifically proven to work.
"We need a lot of data to convince the naysayers and there are a lot of them," Dr. Denham said in August 2018.
A 2018 Veterans Administration study found that hyperbaric therapy has the potential to fulfill a "great need" to improve the health of patients with traumatic brain injuries, but study results have not been easily replicated. "We simply still don't know," the study's authors said of the therapy.
But regardless of the ongoing debate in medicine, Payton and many others swear by the treatment.
"He was alert and that was the biggest improvement that we noticed, he was like he had life breathed back in him again," Nicole said of her son's experience with HBOT. "This is the first thing that has given us true healing."
Dr. Denham, a general surgeon who has focused on HBOT for 10 years, has been part of a push to get state funding for a study to further explore its potential for curing brain injuries. She has also been working with the Dakota Medical Foundation to make it available to more patients — regardless of their ability to pay.
The clinic's effort with the foundation has gotten the attention of North Dakota hotel mogul and philanthropist Gary Tharaldson, who became interested after hearing stories like Payton Rude's. He's planning to give $2 million to the Dakota Medical Foundation to bring access to hyperbaric therapy for more patients.
"We were able to give these kids new life, and the families too. The parents are at wits end, trying to figure out what to do with their kids. We have a solution," Tharaldson said.
If approved by the board, the medical foundation would acquire the Hyperbaric Clinic and run it as a separate charitable entity with an emphasis on affordable access.
"We see this as a shining star, an opportunity for Dakota Medical to work with the community and a major philanthropist to make this care accessible to all," said foundation Executive Director Pat Traynor.
For Payton and his family, it feels like they have their lives back.
"This is the first thing to get him over the hump to finally feel himself again. It cleared everything up," his mother said.
Earlier this year, Payton Rude testified in support of a hyperbaric therapy pilot program bill in the North Dakota legislature.
Sponsored by Rep. Dick Anderson, R-Willow City, the bill aims to secure $335,000 in state funding for a pilot program to explore the therapy's impact on traumatic brain injuries — something Anderson told the Jamestown Sun is an important step toward the therapy being covered by insurers.
The Food and Drug Administration has not approved hyberbaric therapy as a treatment for traumatic brain injuries or post concussion syndrome, though 14 other uses have been cleared, according to the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society.
InForum Digital News Producer Alex Derosier contributed to this report