Hospital honors Knight for lifetime of philanthropy

Norman Knight is credited with funding the state’s first hyperbaric chamber. Norman Knight is credited with funding the state’s first hyperbaric chamber.
By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Correspondent / November 15, 2009

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When a frightened 14-year-old Shavonne Richards was pulled from her burning home in Dorchester by firefighters Thursday, her lungs were full of smoke. She was treated with pressurized pure oxygen therapy in a hyperbaric chamber at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, and she survived.

While she was being treated, Norman Knight, the man whose donation brought that chamber to Boston, was at a ceremony in the city being honored for his lifetime of philanthropy.

Knight, a noted Boston philanthropist, is the founder of The Hundred Club of Massachusetts, which provides money and aid to the families of fallen firefighters. After a deadly 1994 fire, he donated the funds for the state’s first hyperbaric chamber to be installed at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

Hyperbaric treatment was shown to have a positive effect on patients who have respiratory issues, such as smoke inhalation, as well cancer patients, particularly those who have had radiation treatment for cancers of the head and neck. Mass. Eye and Ear was deemed the place for the hyperbaric chamber.

The hospital now has three chambers, which have been improved and upgraded over the years. Knight’s donations for this project top $1 million, hospital officials said.

Fire authorities say smoke inhalation is one of the biggest dangers in a building fire. It is also one of the leading causes of injury to responding firefighters.

In 1994, Boston learned the hard way. Boston Fire Lieutenant Stephen F. Minehan was killed fighting a nine-alarm blaze that department veterans remember simply as “the Charlestown warehouse fire.’’

What many outside the fire service don’t remember is that the Boston Fire Department nearly lost two other firefighters. Darrell Johnson and Terrance Jones were both overcome by smoke after they ran out of air in their tanks while searching for their fallen lieutenant, said Boston Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald.

But in 1994 there was no hyperbaric chamber in Boston, or anywhere else in Massachusetts. It was raining that night, and MedFlight couldn’t get a helicopter off the ground, so the Coast Guard called in a heavy-rescue helicopter to rush the firefighters to Norwalk Hospital in Connecticut, where they spent two weeks recovering, MacDonald said.

Norwalk Hospital had the only emergency hyperbaric chamber in New England at the time.

“After that, Fire Commissioner Marty Pierce . . . when he saw the circumstances, he knew we needed to get this type of treatment in Boston,’’ said State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan. “He approached Mr. Norman Knight.’’

Knight, a retired broadcasting executive turned philanthropist, came through. On Thursday, the Norman Knight Hyperbaric Medicine Center was there for Shavonne. It is the only emergency hyperbaric medicine center in Massachusetts.

The chambers’ uses extend beyond fire victims. Hyperbaric therapy promotes the growth of new blood vessels and reduces inflammation, meaning which can help the body fight difficult infections. Hyperbaric chamber therapy is also used to treat carbon monoxide poisoning.

Coan calls it “a lifeline.’’

“The doctors at Mass. Eye and Ear are just doing fantastic work, and that work is able to be done because of a great citizen of Massachusetts,’’ Coan said.

Knight, a private man who did not respond to requests for an interview, also donates money to support increased nursing staff and to aid low-income hospital employees.

On Thursday, he was honored for his lifetime of service by Mass. Eye and Ear at the clinic’s annual Light Up the Night dinner. At first, he declined the award. Hospital officials said it took some persuading to get Knight to accept recognition.

“It was one of those ‘wow’ moments on Thursday,’’ said Mass. Eye and Ear President and CEO John Fernandez. “You just sat there and you think how appropriate that when we were honoring him, we were also helping a patient. You can’t make up these stories.’’

Globe correspondent Christopher Girard contributed to this report. John M. Guilfoil can be reached at