N.B.-born doctor puts his skills to work protecting astronauts

·5 min read

Michael Harrison didn't really plan to become a doctor, let alone one who puts his medical skills to work in a space program.

But that's how things have turned out for the Oromocto-born man.

The seed was likely planted as a child, part of a military family connected to flight.

"My father was a military helicopter pilot," Harrison said in a phone interview from Florida, which he now calls home.

Submitted by Michael Harrison
Submitted by Michael Harrison

"So I was around things that flew a lot as a kid. I had, every family day the military had, to get a helicopter ride out of it or something like that. So I always was very interested in things that flew."

He went to UNB to study kinesiology, and went on to a masters and Ph.D in exercise physiology, statistics and biomechanics.

During his doctorate, he became involved in a study of military helicopter pilots, coming full circle from those days as a kid on military bases.

The Canadian Forces had discovered that pilots and engineers using night vision goggles were developing a string of symptoms related to neck problems — headaches, tingling and numbness in their arms and neck pain. And the longer they had served, the worse the problems were.

"So, they asked us to start looking into it, and we discovered that other countries were having some issues as well," Harrison said.

"So we co-operated with the US Army at their research lab in Alabama, and it was down at Fort Rucker that I learned that some of the issues that we were looking at with helicopter pilots — neck injuries and vibration spectrums and human tolerances and G-forces — were things that translated to things that NASA, in the space program, also took into consideration."

"Everything I did after that sort of intersected with NASA in one way, shape or form," Harrison said.

He headed off to medical school, and as part of his training became interested in the effects of pressure on the body and the use of hyperbaric chambers to treat it.

After school, it wasn't long before he was once again connected to the space program through research.

"I did a post-doctorate at Mayo Clinic after finishing medical school between graduation and the start of residency, looking at high-altitude illness in people that were living and working at the South Pole."

NASA was one of the organizations behind the research.

Submitted by Michael Harrison
Submitted by Michael Harrison

Harrison eventually began work in the ER at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, but his interest in aerospace medicine didn't wane.

He signed on with Elon Musk's SpaceX program as a flight surgeon for the Nov. 15, 2020 launch of the Crew-1 Dragon.

"Aerospace medicine is actually boarded under preventive medicine," Harrison said.

"And that's why you're trying to make your crew members as healthy as possible so they can tolerate all the stresses that that environment is going to throw at them — high G-forces, accelerations, extremes of temperature, high carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, too little oxygen."

In preparation for a trip to the International Space Station, where the crew was to spend two weeks with people from other space agencies, the medical prep work was vital.

Those astronauts were put through stringent NASA testing for chronic disease, orthopedic injuries, physical fitness and cardiovascular, neurological and ocular health.


Harrison said they had a two-week quarantine and were vaccinated against COVID-19, hepatitis A and B, measles, rubella, mumps and chickenpox.

"The concern is that if one of these astronauts were to get sick or injured or have something adverse happen to them, they're not just putting themselves [at risk], we're putting everybody on the space station at risk because it's going to have to be an intervention of some sort to treat them," Harrison said.

"And there may be an indication in worst-case scenarios where somebody has to come home early and you have to do an emergency undock and de-orbit and re-entry. And none of those are benign things and none of those are cheap things."

Flight surgeons also look after the psychological health of astronauts once they're in space.

"We've got four people who are going to be in a very unfamiliar environment for them, and they're going to be a long way from home and they're aware of the risks," Harrison said.

"So you're always worried about how these folks are doing, are they sleeping well, eating well, are they managing the stress appropriately?"

And there's also the worry that something will happen that requires immediate medical attention, which is where Harrison's emergency medicine background comes into play.

"I practised telehealth during the pandemic, talking to people in other hospitals that weren't ICU doctors that were feeling overwhelmed and unsure what to do. You're talking through it with telehealth," he said.

"And NASA will tell you they've been doing telehealth for years, and they've been doing it since before it was cool."

Harrison has just accepted a new job as chief medical officer with Axiom, the company building a commercial space station in earth's orbit.

Submitted by Michael Harrison
Submitted by Michael Harrison

He'll stay on with the Mayo Clinic, picking up shifts in the ER, to keep his skills sharp.

But Harrison said what he and other doctors are learning in space will have practical applications here on earth. They're learning how to practise austere medicine when there is no access to state-of-the-art equipment. They're also learning about disaster medicine, operating with limited resources, using telehealth effectively, and training non-medical people to provide care for people in the case of an emergency and in a very efficient time.

"We're not just supporting billionaires that are going to space on vacation," he said.

"We're using space as an analog for 'How do we deal with the next natural disaster or the next time Haiti has an earthquake?'

"So things like that are what make aerospace medicine very exciting, when you bring it back down to your practice on earth."


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