N.B.-born Doctor puts his skills into protecting astronauts

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 probably planted as a child by a military family with ties to flight.

“My father was a military helicopter pilot,”Harrison spoke in a telephone interview from Florida, where he now calls home.

Harrison sitting on the Mayo Clinic’s helicopter. He claims that the Mayo Clinic receives many complex cases that are too difficult for other ERs. (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 studied kinesiology at UNB and went on for a masters and doctorate in exercise physiology and statistics. 

He was involved in a study on military helicopter pilots while completing his doctorate. It was a return to the days when he was a kid at 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.

Dr. Harrison discovered aerospace medicine was a good choice when he studied neck injuries in Canadian Griffin helicopter crews.

“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 went on to medical school and became interested in the effects pressure has on the body and the use hyperbaric chambers for treatment.

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 researchers.

Dr. Michael Harrison was born to a military family in Oromocto and works at the Mayo Clinic ER, Jacksonville, Fla.

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.”

Preparation for the International Space Station trip was crucial. The crew would spend two weeks with other space agencies.

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

Crowds watch the launch from the SpaceX Falcon 9 Crew Dragon on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020. The Crew-1 mission carried four astronauts. Dr. Harrison was a flight surgeon on the mission. (AP)

Harrison stated that they had been placed in a quarantine for two weeks and were then vaccinated against COVID-19 as well as hepatitis A/B and measles, rubella, chickenpox, and hepatitis B.

“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.”

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

Harrison believes that his experience with telehealth during the pandemics will be a benefit to his work with astronauts. He claims that NASA has provided him with the following: “been doing it since before it was cool.”(Submitted by Michael Harrison

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

Harrison stated that what he and others are learning in space will be applicable to their work 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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