As a commercial diver working on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, Mike Comer was familiar with decompression, or hyperbaric, chambers. When he learned that the devices could also be used to help treat people suffering from complications of diabetes, such as nonhealing wounds, he saw a business opportunity. As told to Darren Dahl.
I have ADD and got through high school by the skin of my teeth. After I graduated, I got talked into going to technical school to become a commercial diver. I took a course on how to deal with dive-related emergencies and fell in love.
In 1991, my dad was found to have cancer, and I got a job in California to be near him. The medical officer was a doctor who specialized in decompression chambers.
A hyperbaric chamber is a device that allows people to breathe 100 percent pure oxygen at increased pressure, which forces about 15 percent more oxygen into your plasma than at normal pressure. The hyperoxygenated blood helps divers who surface too quickly scrub excess nitrogen from their bloodstream. It also greatly speeds the healing process of soft-tissue wounds.
A hospital in Culver City approached me about helping build a wound-care center using a hyperbaric chamber. I knew about dive medicine, but I didn't know about wound care. I remember our first patient, a woman with an abdominal wound. They wheeled her in, took the dressing off—and all these maggots spilled out all over the floor. I ran outside and got sick. Then a nurse told me that the presence of the maggots was natural; in fact, they had eaten all the dead tissue and saved her life. I had no idea how life-threatening a nonhealing wound could be.
A year later, three partners and I started a hyperbaric facility in Beverly Hills that catered to people who had undergone cosmetic and reconstructive surgery. I found myself dealing with celebrities, adult-movie stars—and large egos. So I sold my shares of the business and started Wound Care Advantage in 2002.
We build and operate outpatient wound centers, mainly in partnership with community hospitals in rural areas. It's sad to say, but our business is growing, because diabetes is getting worse in this country. Most of our patients have nonhealing wounds caused bydiabetes, vascular disease, and obesity. Many diabetics are also neuropathic, which means they can't feel their feet. If they have a problem, they don't even know it, so it gets worse. We need options to treat these patients quickly to avoid amputations. I've become very passionate about helping someone save his or her leg.
I've never learned to be a CEO. I don't know how to golf. I live half a block from my office. I walk to work in flip-flops. I remember a CEO came for a visit, and despite my advice to wear jeans, he showed up in a three-piece suit. I pulled up in my 1983 CJ7 Jeep, which doesn't have doors or a roof. The look on his face was priceless.
DARREN DAHL is a contributing editor at Inc. Magazine, which he has written for since 2004. He also works as a collaborative writer and editor and has partnered with several high-profile authors. Dahl lives in Asheville, NC.