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Dubai: Veteran Nasa astronaut talks about health care, space pharmacy and how to keep fit

Dr Scott E Parazynski sheds light on solutions for injured or ailing astronauts on the sidelines of Arab Health 2022.



Nasa Astronaut Dr Scott E. Parazynski. (left) with Prof. Shafi Ahmed. Supplied photo.
Nasa Astronaut Dr Scott E. Parazynski. (left) with Prof. Shafi Ahmed. Supplied photo.
by

Nandini Sircar

Published: Wed 26 Jan 2022, 5:00 PM

Last updated: Wed 26 Jan 2022, 11:26 PM

Astronauts who’ve spent long durations in space during a mission often suffer from visual acuity, cataracts, disc hernia and even certain types of cancers due to radiation, explained American physician and former Nasa Astronaut Dr Scott E. Parazynski.

A veteran of five Space Shuttle flights and seven spacewalks, the astronaut spoke to Khaleej Times on the sidelines of the ongoing Arab Health 2022 while emphasizing on “space pharmacy” and how technology has been imperative in driving forward medical solutions for injured or ailing astronauts.

Recalling his own health problems, he opined that astronaut also suffer from herniated disc, a condition that he had experienced after his frequent missions to space.

He opines, “I did end up having a back injury that is related to repeated exposure to space flights. When you go up in the space, you grow about six to 10 cm and when you come back, you are squashed down again. That sets up astronauts for disc hernia, and they also have a high risk of cataracts and certain types of cancer due to radiation in the environment.”

Parazynski noted the microgravity environment is hard on the human body and vigorous exercises become important to keep muscles and bones from deteriorating.

He later says, “Astronauts need to maintain a good diet, and exercise on Earth as well as on Space. We also have periodic conferences with our flight surgeons in and mission control to ensure everything is fine. There are some health conditions which are worrisome for long duration astronauts including changes in vision that we are very worried about for the future. Astronauts who spend long durations in space and when they come back to Earth, there is significant changes in their visual acuity because of pressure difference and it’s not fully understood why it happens.”

Narrating a situation where an astronaut had a fractured finger during a space mission, Parazynski underlines being treated remotely by doctors, as is the case due to Covid now, but it is not so uncommon for astronauts.

“When we press the boundaries of exploration to make it possible to deliver care in space, wonderful things happen. We do have a 3D printer abroad the ISS. They needed to deliver a splint for a type of finger fracture, so they were able to send out a firewall and print it out just in time, as it was needed for that particular patient. One can leverage the unmet needs of space flight with new technology and then end up with a solution that can then be deployed in remote parts of the planet. There are different examples. Telemedicine is a good example where you don’t have specialists,” points out the former Nasa astronaut.

Despite foraying into pharmaceutical solutions by trying to set up space pharmacies and replenishing them from time to time, sometimes the need for a ‘doctor’ becomes critical.

Shedding light on connecting with patients who are onboard a space mission, co-panelist Cancer surgeon at The Royal London and St Bartholomew's Hospitals and Chief medical officer of Medical Realities, Prof. Shafi Ahmed says, “The instance about treating an astronaut’s finger fracture shows connectivity, about being remote but how we can still use some of these technologies not just in space but also on Earth.”

“The pandemic has helped us to rethink how we look after patients remotely through telemedicine, telehealth. The pandemic has helped us to reimagine how healthcare should, and could look like in the future. It has helped us to accelerate innovation. Before it used to be more tricky, more difficult and took longer to innovate. Now, it’s more rapid. Also, industries are coming together with healthcare providers and innovators, and everyone is supercharged. That’s been the advantage of the pandemic. Additionally, governments have changed the rules and regulations allowing us to innovate much faster, bring real technology to home,” added Prof. Ahmed.


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