New Brunswick-born doctor puts his skills to work protecting astronauts

Michael Harrison had no real intention of becoming a doctor, much less one who would put his medical skills to use for a space program.

But that’s how things turned out for the man born in Oromocto.

The seed was likely planted when she was a child, part of a military family connected to the leak.

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

Harrison seated on the Mayo Clinic helicopter. He says the Mayo Clinic often receives emergency cases that are too much for other emergencies to handle. (Submitted by Michael Harrison)

“So I was around things that flew a lot when I was a kid. I had, every day as a family, the military, to go on a helicopter ride or something. So I was always very interested in things that fly.”

He went to UNB to study kinesiology, then he earned an MS and PhD in exercise physiology, statistics, and biomechanics.

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

The Canadian Forces had discovered that pilots and engineers using night vision goggles developed a series of symptoms related to neck problems – headaches, tingling and numbness in the arms and neck pain. And the longer they had served, the more serious the problems.

“So they asked us to start looking into it, and we found out that other countries had issues as well,” Harrison said.

Dr. Harrison became interested in aerospace medicine when he studied the cause of neck injuries among Canadian Griffin helicopter crews.

“So we cooperated with the US military in their research lab in Alabama, and it was at Fort Rucker that I learned that some of the issues we were looking at with helicopter pilots – neck injuries and spectra of human vibrations and tolerances and G-forces – were things that translated into things that NASA, in the space program, took into consideration as well.”

“Everything I did after that kind of NASA encounter in one way or another,” 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 connected to the space program again through research.

“I did a post-doc at the Mayo Clinic after finishing medical school between graduation and starting residency, looking at high altitude illnesses in people who lived and worked at the South Pole. .”

NASA was one of the organizations behind the research.

Dr. Michael Harrison, born into a military family in Oromocto, works at the Mayo Clinic ER in Jacksonville, Florida. (Submitted by Michael Harrison)

Harrison eventually began working in the emergency room at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, but his interest in aerospace medicine continued unabated.

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

“Aerospace medicine is actually integrated with preventative medicine,” Harrison said.

“And that’s why you try to make your crew members as healthy as possible so they can tolerate all the stresses that this environment is going to put on them – high G-forces, accelerations, extreme temperatures, 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, medical preparation work was vital.

These astronauts underwent rigorous testing by NASA for chronic disease, orthopedic injuries, physical fitness, and cardiovascular, neurological, and eye health.

Crowds on the beach in Cape Canaveral, Florida watch the launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 Crew Dragon on its Crew-1 mission carrying four astronauts, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, in this 3 1/2 minute exhibit. Dr. Harrison was a flight surgeon for the mission. (AP)

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

“The problem is that if one of these astronauts got sick or injured or something bad happened to them, they didn’t just put themselves [at risk]we’re putting everyone on the space station at risk because it’s going to take some kind of intervention to cure them,” Harrison said.

“And there may be an indication in worst-case scenarios where someone has to go home early and you have to do an emergency undocking, deorbit and reentry. And none of that is benign and nothing it’s all cheap.”

Flight surgeons also tend to the psychological health of astronauts once they are in space.

“We have four people who are going to be in a very unfamiliar environment for them, and they’re going to be away from home and they’re aware of the risks,” Harrison said.

“So you’re still worried about how these people are doing, are they sleeping well, are they eating well, are they handling stress appropriately?”

And there’s also the fear of something happening that requires immediate medical attention, which is where Harrison’s background in emergency medicine comes in.

“I did telehealth during the pandemic, talking to people in other hospitals who weren’t critical care doctors who felt overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do. You talk about it with telehealth,” did he declare.

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

Harrison just accepted a new position as chief medical officer at Axiom, the company building a commercial space station in Earth orbit.

Harrison says her experiences using telehealth during the pandemic will help her in her work with astronauts. He says NASA “has been doing it since before it was cool.” (Submitted by Michael Harrison)

He will remain at the Mayo Clinic, taking ER shifts, to keep his skills sharp.

But Harrison said what he and other doctors learn in space will have practical applications here on earth. They learn to practice austere medicine when they do not have access to advanced equipment. They also learn disaster medicine, operate with limited resources, effectively use telehealth, and train non-medical people to provide care to people in emergencies and in a very efficient timeframe.

“We don’t just support billionaires who go on space vacations,” he said.

“We use space as an analogue for ‘How are we going to deal with the next natural disaster or the next time Haiti has an earthquake?’

“So it’s things like that that make aerospace medicine very exciting, when you bring it back to your practice on land.”