BROWARD COUNTY, Fla. – Florida leads the nation in the number of drowning deaths among preschoolers, and those who survive are often left with long-term disabilities caused by severe brain damage.
"It happened so quick. We didn't even realize it," Tanya Woodford said. "One minute, he was in the house playing. Next minute, he was in the bottom of the pool."
Woodford's son, Jayden, was just 2 years old when he fell into a pool in the family's backyard.
"He didn't have a heartbeat for an hour, so they didn't really expect him to make it. They said I should get ready to donate his organs," Woodford said.
Tunishia Wardally received an equally grim prognosis after her son, Talib, nearly drowned in 2014.
"We were told from the neurologist that Talib would never smile again, he would never eat again, he would never walk again -- that he would never do anything -- that his best bet was Talib would be on a trach (tube) and a feeding tube for the rest of his life," Wardally said.
But instead of giving up, both women turned to hyperbaric oxygen therapy, or HBOT.
"Often, a mother's maternal instinct will kick in. She'll get on the internet and call me and I'll say, 'Well, you know I can't hurt your child. There's nothing harmful about doing hyperbaric oxygen,'" physical therapist Ray Cralle said.
With HBOT, patients are exposed to 100 percent oxygen in a total body chamber in which the atmospheric pressure is increased and controlled.
The therapy can support the body's natural healing process for several conditions and is used off-label for many others.
"A lot of times, it's a gimmick," said Dr. Blaine Shaktin, director of Memorial Healthcare's Hyperbaric Center.
Shatkin said that some neurologic injuries will improve on their own, making it difficult to prove that hyperbaric oxygen therapy really helps.
"Late effects are very difficult to treat when it comes to neurologic injury," Shatkin said.
But Wardally and Woodford said they see improvement every time their children go through a series of treatments.
"In the beginning, he would stare off, not moving his eyes. Then he started looking around, definitely more alert," Woodford said of Jayden.
Wardally is equally encouraged about Talib.
"He's learned to crawl. He's learned to eat. He flips onto all fours. He pushes himself up. It's an amazing therapy," she said.
When HBOT is used off-label, the treatment is not covered by insurance.
Each session can cost thousands of dollars, and ongoing therapy may be needed to sustain improvements made.