By Ann Leslie Davis
Sometimes it just takes one move to change your life. Especially a dumb one. That's what Ironman triathlete and chronic over-achiever Alex Williams found out one May night in 2017 when she was pinned on the mat with a partner twice her size. A petite but powerful 5-foot-3-inch woman, she might have had the good sense to say quits and just enjoy the rest of the impromptu wrestling party. But Tiffany, her fiancée, was watching.
"Nah, we're finishing this shit," WiIliams decided, and hoisted her opponent's bulk against the weight of her shoulder.
Williams heard the tear before she felt it: a jagged scissor-rip of muscle separating from bone. In the adrenaline rush, she didn't stop.
"I'm an athlete and idiot, so I kept wrestling," Williams said. "The shoulder tore, but what didn't tear was my damn ego."
It was only the next morning, when Williams couldn't lift her arm, that she realized something was seriously wrong. Doctors gave her Vicodin, Ibuprofen, and a six-month recuperation period to return to basic function. Not back to normal, which she needed for her work as EMT, police trainee, and birthing doula who'd once saved a baby's life with an emergency delivery on a bathroom floor. So Williams opted for a treatment popular in triathlete circles — hyperbaric oxygen therapy. It was the beginning of a two-year odyssey that started with her own healing and ended with the creation of the East Bay's first hyperbarics treatment spa.
If the word hyperbarics brings to mind old Jacques Cousteau episodes, there's a reason — when divers surface too quickly, the rapid pressure change can cause dissolved gases in the bloodstream to form bubbles and become trapped in the body, with sometimes fatal results. Hyperbaric treatment, which varies atmospheric pressure inside a chamber to allow the safe release of trapped bubbles, has been used to help divers recover since the early 20th century. But researchers soon found other benefits.
"Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a way to get more oxygen into the body," said Dr. Zayd Ratansi, a Florida-based hyperbarics expert who has helped establish protocols for hyperbaric treatment of many conditions. The treatment provides the body with more energy and "allows the growth and regeneration of new tissue and blood vessels."
FDA approval of hyperbarics was eventually extended to 13 other conditions, including crush injuries, burns, nonhealing wounds (common in diabetes), skin grafts, and delayed radiation damage from cancer treatment. But FDA approval is a long and expensive process. In the past few decades, non-FDA-approved or "off-label" uses for hyperbaric therapy have mushroomed as people search for cures for dozens of conditions that have to date eluded modern medicine — from autism, AIDs, Parkinson's, and depression to the garden-variety torn shoulder. In response, the FDA and some medical professionals have raised red flags, citing insufficient evidence of benefits along with the concern that consumers might forgo necessary medical treatment in favor of an unproven procedure. Hyperbarics promoters respond that research and anecdotal evidence show numerous positive findings and that many FDA-approved drugs are prescribed for off-label uses. Ultimately, both sides say, it is up to the individual to assess the risks and benefits and make his or her own decision. The FDA emphasizes the importance of talking with your doctor before undergoing hyperbaric treatment for off-label uses.
As she sat at home with her sore shoulder and mounting bills, Williams remembered what she'd heard from friends about hyperbarics and decided to investigate further. She visited nearby hospitals and clinics with hyperbaric chambers and found the same wherever she went: The treatment seemed cool, but the settings were sterile. Clients wore gowns and often sat in transparent, multiperson chambers. Then there was the cost: at least $300 per session for private clinics, over $1,000 for hospitals. Williams was told she would need 30 to 40 sessions, paid for out of pocket. She thought about her part-time EMT and doula salary and went back home.
Then Williams did the unexpected — she bought her own "soft shell" chamber (chambers can be either "soft" or "hard" shell, which corresponds to the amount of pressure they can contain). With a loan from a generous friend, Williams drove her pickup down to a hyperbarics chamber manufacturer in Los Angeles, plunked down $8,000, and drove back to her Oakland apartment with the chamber tied down to her cargo bed. As Tiffany looked on, amused, Williams set it up in their living room. Over the next three weeks, she crawled inside for an hour every day.
"After three weeks, my mobility returned," she said. "In five weeks, I could go back to the gym and lift 60-pound weights with no problem."
Friends were so impressed they began stopping by to experience the magic for themselves. Word spread, and soon everyone wanted a free session. Just when she started to wonder if she needed to up her renters' insurance, Williams realized that offering hyperbaric treatments could be a calling. She dropped the EMT work and police training and began to explore her heaviest lift yet — opening her own business.
As a child, Williams spent weekends in her grandparents' convenience store on the corner of San Pablo and Addison in Berkeley. When she was 6, they gave her a stool so she could sit at the counter and tally quarters while chit-chatting with customers. It is easy to imagine her bright, relentlessly inquisitive eyes just above counter-level, engaging with everyone and everything.
"I was into it, right from the start," she said. "My family saw I had this entrepreneurial spirit."
Her grandparents, who'd come to California in the great African American migration from the deep South, taught Williams how to steward a business. She swept the floors, counted the till, and observed carefully how her grandparents treated their customers, addressing each person by name and knowing their concerns.
With that childhood's worth of business lessons, Williams jumped into her new project without delay. Inside of two months, she got up to speed on the field, hired a CFO and bookkeeper, Frieda Hoffman and Desiree Lee, formed an LLC, retained a medical adviser, scraped together a $60,000 loan, bought another soft shell chamber, conjured a name – Holistic Hyperbarics – and rented a tiny commercial space in Albany. Then came time to network. WIlliams signed up for her first professional hyperbarics conference at a Los Angeles hotel and walked into a room of middle-aged white men.
"I was definitely something to look at, as a young black queer person and unapologetic about it," she said. People were polite, she noted, but uncomprehending.
"No one wants to directly offend you, but they would say things like, 'Oh, how did you get into this business?' Or they'd ask where my superiors were, or if I'd gotten a lot of assistance. When I told them I did it on my own, they just couldn't grasp it."
Unfortunately, Williams found a similar attitude once she opened her Albany hole-in-the-wall in July 2017. She'd spend hours on the phone in medical conversations with potential clients, only to have them look past her for the owner when they walked in the door. Some assumed she was the security guard.
Nevertheless, WiIliams persisted, and her business grew. People liked her warmth and endless enthusiasm, her professional approach and competitive prices. She began getting referrals from physical and occupational therapists and plastic surgeons and helped a woman with complications from a broken ankle and faulty follow-up surgery. Then Judith, a longtime Lyme disease sufferer, showed up at her door — on crutches.
Judith (who asked that her last name not be used) believes that she contracted Lyme disease while walking her dog through Tilden Park back in the late 1980s (her dog contracted the disease and eventually died, but she had never heard of it and wasn't tested at the time). For the next 25 years, she experienced mysterious and recurring health problems. Then in 2014, her body "just collapsed," she said. She was in severe pain, had constant "brain fog," and slept all the time. An acupuncturist finally suggested testing for Lyme. Judith got the test and it came back positive. After that, she tried everything — massage, diet, herbalists, acupuncture, and cold laser therapy, which is supposed to treat the neuropathy that is so often coupled with Lyme. Nothing really helped. Then she heard about hyperbarics.
Judith began going three times a week and quickly felt an increase in her energy level, though she was only being treated in a "mild" hyperbaric chamber.
"I'm not back to normal, but this is the only treatment that's made any difference," Judith said. "I used to sleep all day and here I am now, talking to you on the phone at 1 p.m."
Perhaps Williams' most rewarding experience was helping a client become pregnant. The client, Mika, 40, had undergone multiple failed fertility treatments before coming to Holistic Hyperbarics in Albany late last summer. Under the care of Williams and Ratansi, Mika began daily sessions, following the hyperbarics protocol for infertility. After a few sessions, MRIs showed a thickening of her uterine lining and greater quantity of viable eggs. At the conclusion of the protocol, Mika became pregnant.
Whether or not she might have become pregnant anyway, Mika is convinced her hyperbaric treatments made the difference.
"I got pregnant after only two months on the treatment," she said. "I would strongly recommend it."
Within a year, Williams' modest operation became so successful that she decided she was ready to build her dream: a full hyperbarics spa that reflected both her aesthetic sense and her belief in affordable, individualized care. Williams, Hoffman, and Lee put together $250,000 in funding, switched from an LLC to a corporation, hired more staff, and retained Ratansi as a second medical adviser. They then rented and renovated a larger space in Berkeley that, fittingly, is a mile from her grandparents' old shop. Official opening day is June 1.
After hearing so much about the experience, I decided it was my turn to climb into a chamber. Hyperbaric treatment isn't a one-and-done kind of thing, but I was curious. Tiptoeing between power cords on a pre-opening visit, I was brought to a quiet room and came face-to-face with a human-sized tubular container with windows. This was the soft shell chamber, used for "dives" up to 1.3 times atmospheric pressure (the equivalent of diving to a 10-foot depth). Williams also has hard shell chambers in her new facility, which allow treatments of 1.5 to 3.0 times atmospheric pressure (or a 15- to 66-foot depth).
Brodie, the technical assistant, explained the treatment and double-checked my medical form to make sure I didn't have any conditions (like a cold) that would preclude my participation. He said I could stay in my street clothes and bring in my devices, then showed me a short video. Then, cellphone in hand, I clambered inside — and fell onto a super-soft mattress. Brodie gently tucked me in with blankets and a pillow, showed me the oxygen mask and the walkie-talkie for reaching him in case of questions or emergencies, and zipped me in.
The air pressure increased slowly while I looked through emails and sent a few texts. The body accommodates easily to slight changes in atmospheric pressure, and during a 90-minute session, I was never uncomfortable. Except for wearing an oxygen mask and having a ceiling a right above my head, it felt a lot like lying in bed at home.
After the session, WiIliams gave me a tour of Berkeley's new, soon-to-open Holistic Hyperbarics. True to her vision, she has made it the opposite of hospital-like — cool and leafy, with giant moss walls and strains of Nina Simone wafting down the corridors. Each of the six private rooms has its own chamber, either hard or soft shell. When we got to the bare concrete courtyard, WIlliams asked me to imagine it as it will be come June 1, with trellises and passionfruit vine, a hammock, lounge chairs, and an outdoor fireplace.
Walking back to the front desk and looking uncharacteristically tired, Williams explained the impulse that has led her here.
"I've been a wrestler, a police trainee, done the Ironman challenge, and saved a baby's life," she said. "This was by far the hardest.
"The whole reason I started this is that I was pissed off with prices and with having to heal myself. My hope was that if we put hyperbaric treatment into a beautiful setting and cut the price, more people could benefit."
Before I left, she pointed to a corner. Underneath a fiddle leaf fig perched a modest stool — the stool that helped raise her high enough to see the customers when she was a little girl.
"My whole life has been about serving people," Williams said. "I'm exactly where I should be right now."
A patient prepares for hyperbaric treatment at Holistic Hyperbarics. Photo courtesy Michelle Burton.
Treatment at Holistic Hyperbarics requires a $190 introductory session. Individual follow-up sessions cost
$160 for the soft shell chamber
(90 minutes) or $200 for the hard shell chamber (75 minutes). A variety of discount packages are available for both chambers. Holistic Hyperbarics offers special discounts for EMTs, police officers, firefighters, teachers, and social workers. Holistic Hyperbarics, open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. daily,
2903 Adeline St., Berkeley,