For the first 20-or-so years after leaving the U.S. Navy, John Kaness was doing fine. The Bayfield native met his future wife, Stephanie, the day he was discharged. But in 2011, things took a turn toward the worse.
Kaness’s cognitive abilities began rapidly declining. Mood swings became commonplace. Driving as fast as 60 mph caused him acute panic attacks.
Simple things like writing, typing and texting suddenly seemed impossible, he said. He couldn’t make sense of what to do when a crosswalk signal changed to green.
He didn’t know it at the time, but he was experiencing depleted uranium poisoning from toxins that had remained unnoticed in his body since his time in Desert Storm between August 1990 and February 1991.
The U.S. Veterans Affairs Department wrote him off as another sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2016, the VA told Kaness he was going to die and to “go fishing while I still could,” he said.
Kaness said he felt like he was out of options. But one day – purely by accident – his wife, who works at an employee recruitment agency, learned about a service for veterans experiencing myriad brain trauma conditions offered in Durango by Mountain Hyperbarics, paid for by a nonprofit called America’s Mighty Warriors.
How it works
Mountain Hyperbarics co-owner George Glass said hyperbaric oxygen therapy helps speed up the body's process of healing wounds, including surgically reattached limbs, and treats diabetic ulcers, macular degeneration, traumatic brain injuries, PTSD and even Lyme disease.
The treatment works by placing a patient into a hyperbaric body chamber and increasing atmospheric pressure within it.
The chamber itself is 8 feet long and 42 inches in diameter on the inside. Three windows are fixed into the chamber, which is lit by an artificial sunlight lamp. The patient has a 4-inch mattress to lie on.
The chamber is quiet, save for the gentle bubbling of a humidifier, Glass said.
Having atmospheric pressure applied to one’s body feels like “someone’s giving you a big hug,” he said.
“That pressure reduces inflammation throughout the body. Then you’re maximizing the oxygenation of the blood supply,” he said. “That blood supply is able to get into areas it wasn’t able to get into before, carrying nutrients, including oxygen, necessary for tissue regeneration.”
The treatment allows the body to take in “100% pure oxygen” not just through red blood cells, but blood plasma and other liquids in the body such as cerebrospinal fluid, according to Mountain Hyperbarics.
Patients utilize hyperbaric oxygen therapy for various reasons, from acclimating to a specific elevation and high-elevation athletic performance to general health purposes. But the technology has also long proven capable of treating traumatic brain injuries, PTSD and other maladies often born of war, Glass said.
Veterans who apply and are approved for treatment through America’s Mighty Warriors can receive life-changing treatment for traumatic brain injuries, PTSD and other maladies often born of war.
For Kaness, hyperbaric oxygen therapy at Mountain Hyperbarics saved his marriage, his sanity and ultimately his life, he said.
‘I handled the rounds everyday for 30 days’
The VA diagnosed Kaness with PTSD, but he was really suffering from depleted uranium poisoning after handling 20 mm rounds for a Phalanx CIWS (“Sea Wiz”) closed-end weapon system, which was “a Gatling gun on every ship” that “looks a little bit like an R2-D2,” he said.
“I handled the rounds everyday for 30 days,” he said. “And I even asked. I said, ‘Depleted uranium? Is this stuff harmful?’ And you know the answer a sailor’s going to get: ‘Perfectly harmless, son. Back to work.’”
As a Boatswain’s Mate — a Navy petty officer responsible for deck maintenance, small boat operations and navigation — Kaness was constantly outside, under the sun and in the smoke from depleted uranium rounds. He said he handled the rounds routinely during training before “the action” of Desert Storm took off.
“Long story short, I inhaled the dust. Very small submicronic dust that comes off depleted uranium rounds. It would glow, coming out of the barrel white hot,” he said.
It took Kaness about two decades before he felt the consequences of depleted uranium exposure. But when the effects hit, they hit hard.
“It had taken over all functions,” he said.
Scans would show more than one area of his brain as “black and blue,” an indication of no or very low brain activity.
“The depleted uranium had completely constricted all my capillaries and blood was no longer bringing oxygen to my brain. The blood wasn’t flowing to it,” he said.
He lost his appetite, his ability to drive and to effectively communicate. He lost his ability to understand or be comfortable around people “because they couldn’t get me and I couldn’t get them,” he said. His wife had to drive him to wherever he needed to go and filled out important paperwork for him.
Stephanie Kaness said her husband developed memory issues in addition to mood swings that carried him to “very high high’s” and dropped him to “very low low’s.”
“I met him the day he got out of the Navy. Who he was then and who he was after this started taking effect were two completely different people,” she said.
Kaness felt so hopeless he considered “doing the world a favor,” he said. The only thing that held him back was he was a “single dad of a Golf War son on the spectrum.”
Help for people having suicidal thoughts or for those who fear a person is considering suicide:
Axis Care Hotline:
24/7 local response to your crisis & behavioral health needs: 970-247-5245
National Suicide Prevention Hotline:
1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text “TALK” to 741741
Red Nacional de Prevención del Suicidio:
Fort Lewis College Counseling Center:
Boys Town Hotline:
877-542-7233 or safe2tell.org
Colorado Crisis Support Line:
844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255, or online at coloradocrisisservices.org to access a live chat available in 17 languages. The line has mental-health professionals available to talk to adults or youths 24 hours a day.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:
Colorado chapter information available at afsp.org/chapter/afsp-colorado/
A website for adult men contemplating suicide is available at mantherapy.org
Treatment exceeds expectations
John and Stephanie were skeptical when they first learned about hyperbaric oxygen therapy. But after John had a particularly heavy mood swing, they decided to call Glass's office and take the prospect of it more seriously.
They were cautiously optimistic about the treatment, Stephanie said. She had heard of it, but wasn't sure of it.
The results blew away their expectations.
Kaness started a regime of five hyperbaric oxygen therapy sessions a week, and continued for 12 weeks. Twenty sessions later, he was ready to get behind the wheel of a car again, he said.
His appetite returned after his first treatment. By the fourth week of treatment, he was driving on the freeways again and could transport himself back and forth between Bayfield and Durango.
Kansess still struggles to put words to the transformation he experienced. He said hyperbaric oxygen treatment was like flipping switches on in his brain.
“If you want to know what a miracle feels like, this is what it feels like,” he said. “I thought I was going crazy. All my organs were shutting down. That (treatment) got me straight again. And I no longer felt like I needed to do the world a favor, if you know what I mean.”
With his mental faculties restored, Kaness said he could return to airplane mechanics if he wanted to. He will never be an inspector again, but he could work with his hands. For now, he is content growing microgreens to make a living.
He owns Shady Acre Farms LLC in Bayfield and grows microgreens to sell at the local grocery store and farmers market. But he said he is taking a break from business at the moment because his mother recently died. He traveled to Southern California for end-of-life services, a trip that would have been impossible had he never received hyperbaric oxygen treatment.
“God. How do you explain it? It was completely life changing. And here I still am. The VA said I was going to die,” he said.
Stephanie said America’s Mighty Warriors alone isn’t enough to fund hyperbaric oxygen treatment for all the veterans that need it.
“(Depleted uranium) is so toxic. And it’ll wait 15 years and pop out later. And then you just lose your mind and go crazy with anxiety and all that. And then this (treatment) just stopped that and restored (my mind),” John said.
He said he is certain other veterans, including but not limited to those of Desert Storm, who have physical traumatic brain injuries that are being dismissed as PTSD, and he shared his story because he wants to save lives.