Medicine at the Edge

From the edges of our atmosphere to the depths of the deepest oceans, wherever mankind goes, medicine must follow.

Produced by NHNZ

Man’s desire to explore outside his habitable environment places extreme pressure on his body—for every extreme environment, medicine has to answer the call to get him back alive.

Deep-water diving, climbing Mt Everest, a mission to Mars—these are all environments that demand Medicine at the Edge.

The closest sensation to floating in space on Earth is underwater diving. But unlike astronauts, who face the problem of no atmosphere exposure, divers face the problem of increased atmospheric pressure on the body.

At one of the busiest medical dive centres in the world, Devonport Naval Hospital in Auckland, New Zealand, Canadian diver Sean Gregg is getting treated for paralysis caused by the bends—dissolved nitrogen bubbles on his spine.

When he arrived at the naval hospital doctors doubted he would ever be able to walk again. The treatment involved placing him in a hyperbaric chamber and administering oxygen at pressure. This treatment reduces the nitrogen bubbles on the spine. After a couple of treatments he is able to walk again.

In diving too much oxygen is toxic, at high altitude the problem is too little oxygen. We look at the effects of high altitude on the human body, through the story of a climbing expedition to Mt Everest.

We learn firsthand from the climbers, guides, mountaineering experts and doctors what happens to the body when it is exposed to very low atmospheric pressure.

The Everest story also gives us an insight into why we put our bodies on the line—we experience the disappointment of not making it to the top and the physical price the climbers pay.

Then we head into an environment where there is no pressure. Humans have been travelling to space for over 30 years yet we still need to find the answers to some serious medical problems if we are to go further. What is being done to overcome the medical obstacles involved in further space flight?

Weightlessness is the most medically significant condition experienced in space flight. The human body adjusts fairly quickly to the state but associated problems do occur—most seriously the loss of bone and muscle mass.

In general, space is a deadly physical environment. When astronauts are space walking they are orbiting the earth at 17,000 mph. A rogue piece of space matter the size of a ball bearing will explode a hole in a three inch piece of steel—so what happens if an astronaut gets hit and there is a medical emergency/trauma in space?

Currently there is no way to do surgical procedures in space—but NASA is working on surgical capability. In London Ontario in Canada, Dr Douglas Boyd is using a robot that could one day be used to perform surgery in space.

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