|MadSci Network: Medicine|
That is a good question that does not have a good answer, despite the fact that it is an ongoing problem for not only space travel, but many other activities here on earth as well. You could ask the same question about the brave young men on submarines, smaller naval ships, merchant marine ships or even passenger cruise ships. Other medical conditions and locations present similar problems. You may recall the story about Dr. Jerri Nelsen who discovered Breast Cancer while she was spending the winter over in Antarctica and had to treat herself with chemotherapy drugs until a daring rescue could be staged through a brief break in the perpetual storms of the Antarctic winter. See these sites for more information about that story:
Things turned out as well as could be expected for Dr. Nelson but that is not always the case. Almost one death occurs each winter in Antarctica, often from causes that could have been easily treated with modern medicine or surgical technique. This is part of the extreme risk that is taken by astronauts as well as submariners, explorers, remote researchers and even tourists to remote areas of the earth.
However, that's beside the point. What really is the plan for the astronauts? In the case of a life threatening emergency the shuttle would simply return to Earth. The space shuttle can be on the ground within about 20 minutes from anywhere in its flight if the need arises. This is far different from the months that Dr. Nelsen had to wait. But termination of a multi-million dollar shuttle mission would rarely be necessary. Contrary to popular belief, acute appendicitis can usually be stabilized, or even definitively treated with fluids and IV antibiotics. This is what we would do on a submarine or in Antarctica. In addition, astronauts are carefully screened for any physical conditions which might cause incapacitating illness or the need for emergency medical care.
The case is similar for the growing international space station. When the space station is completed an international crew of up to seven will live and work in space between three and six months. Crew return vehicles will always be attached to the space station to ensure the safe return of all crew members in the event of an emergency.
So much for the need for surgical nurses in space :-) Although don't give up all hope. Most space shuttle missions have a Doctor as one of the crew members and it is foreseeable that a moon base or manned mission to mars could have a surgical team. Would surgery be possible in space? Anything is possible. Something simple like a laproscopic appendectomy (removing the appendix through small incisions with fiber optic cameras) would probably go fairly well in space. As the complexity of the surgery rises, it becomes more and more difficult to get all those people and equipment into space. It will almost always be easier to bring the patient back to earth rather than bring an operating team and suite into space. Theoretically, this could prove fatal for an astronaut the way it sometimes does for people in Antarctica or submarines. Given the nature of space travel, I think appendicitis is the least of their worries.
For more information about NASA's medical programs, see the NASA aerospace Medicine web page: Nasa aerospace medicine
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