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Doctor Finds Passion for Medicine While Working on Underwater Oil Rigs

Athens, Ga. (Dec. 9, 2020) – When Bill Lagaly, D.O., was set to graduate high school, his father wanted his youngest son to go to college. Something, at the time, Dr. Lagaly says wasn’t for him. So, the 17-year-old sought out for diving school instead, where he found his passion for medicine in the hyperbaric oxygen treatments still used today by both the commercial-diving industry and in healthcare.

“I really didn’t like math and was tired of school,” said Dr. Lagaly, new to the Athens area after joining Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center’s Wound/Hyperbaric Center as the medical director. “I knew I wanted to work underwater instead.”

After graduating high school, Dr. Lagaly first attended junior college as an agreement he made with his father. He stuck with school for a year, but it wasn’t long until he moved on to pursue his dreams of working underwater.

His first choice was to join the United States Navy. When he went to enlist however, he was discouraged because of his poor vision. Instead, he chose a trade school. “I went to The Ocean Corporation in Houston instead,” Dr. Lagaly said.

The Ocean Corporation, which opened its doors in 1969, is a school for underwater welding, training students for the commercial-diving industry, among other things.

While there, he took additional training to become a Diver Medical Technician (DMT), training to assist other divers during emergencies. “This is similar to an EMT, only working underwater,” said Dr. Lagaly. “And this role was my first introduction to the medical field.” The additional training involved rotations at emergency rooms and on ambulances throughout Texas.

He also attended additional, emergency training for to industrial- and dive-related accidents and was introduced to hyperbaric oxygen therapy. According to the Commercial Diver Network, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a well-established method used in diving to help with a common diving disorders, which occur when there’s a reduction in the pressure surrounding a person’s body.

This reduction lets gas bubbles into the tissue and/or blood and can cause issues like pain, shortness of breath and can even lead to death. With divers, this occurs when surfacing after a dive – as they ascend (or return to the water’s surface) very quickly, the pressure around them is reduced too quickly as well.

“Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized environment,” said Dr. Lagaly. He says the treatment works by using the high pressure in a hyperbaric chamber to reduce the bubbles and inflammation in the vessels and tissues, allowing for a slower, more controlled ascent.

It was here that Dr. Lagaly, “really started to see the huge role that hyperbaric oxygen therapy played in medicine, not just diving,” he said.  

After training, Dr. Lagaly started work in Louisiana on barges and oil rigs, working as a DMT, where divers are routinely treated with hyperbaric oxygen to prevent and treat diving accidents.

“It’s also used to treat certain serious infections and problem wounds that may not heal as a result of diabetes, vascular disease or radiation injury,” said Dr. Lagaly. He added that hyperbaric oxygen therapy is one of the only treatments used that can help repair tissue that’s been damaged by radiation. “The physics and physiology of this treatment are what really inspired me to go to medical school,” he said. 

When the oil fields closed in the early 1980s, Dr. Lagaly decided to resume school, finishing up his time at the junior college he first attended and moving on to Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology. He spent time as a research assistant for the next two to three years and then enrolled in medical school.

He earned his Doctor of Osteopathy at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth - Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, a field that looks beyond symptoms to understand how lifestyle and environmental factors impact a person’s wellbeing.

He then went on to complete his internship and residency in family medicine at the same facility in Fort Worth, where a wound care and hyperbaric oxygen program was simultaneously being developed at the hospital.

He was able to spend free time and electives with the developing program, exploring the field of hyperbaric medicine that first caught his interest when diving. Although there wasn’t an established residency program around hyperbaric medicine at this time, Dr. Lagaly says he knew that was the field he wanted to go in to.

“The field of family medicine was ideal because it gave me a wide range of medical knowledge to help me to better treat the variety of patients that I now see,” he said.

After residency, he went on to practice family medicine for a couple of years in Arkansas before moving on to develop a hyperbaric and wound care program at St. Vincent Infirmary in Little Rock, Arkansas.

After several years in Little Rock, Dr. Lagaly moved on to Buffalo, N.Y. and established a busy program for a health system there. As he developed his career, Dr. Lagaly also became board certified in undersea and hyperbaric medicine as well as wound medicine and surgery. 

He has been practicing wound care and hyperbaric medicine full time for the past 20 years, and recently joined the team at Piedmont Athens Regional as the medical director in the hospital’s Wound/Hyperbaric Center.

For more information about Dr. Lagaly, visit piedmont.org/DrLagaly.

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