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What Happens If an Astronaut Gets Sick in Space?

Just how prepared are they?

| 2 min read

Just how prepared are they?

Stitching a wound, pulling a tooth, giving an injection, and reading an ultrasound — these are just some of the medical skills that astronauts learn during their 40-hour medical training in preparation for an emergency onboard the International Space Station (ISS).

If something goes wrong that they are not prepared for, their options are quite limited — they need help from doctors back on Earth. They can relay images from the ultrasound and depending on what is wrong, may be able to fix it. But having a diagnosis doesn’t mean that they necessarily have the proper supplies or means to help.

Dr. David Green, senior lecturer in aerospace physiology at King’s College London, told the BBC that the best option would be to send the astronaut back to earth early aboard the Soyuz spacecraft that is always docked to the ISS, but even that isn’t ideal. It wouldn’t exactly be an enjoyable three-and-a-half-hour journey.

"They have limited resources on the ISS but there are no life support facilities on Soyuz either. If it's a good flight back they could experience a g-force of 4g-5g on re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. That's pretty unpleasant for a healthy individual, never mind someone who's critically ill."

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Some of the medial equipment aboard the ISS includes: “a first aid kit, a large book of medical conditions and some useful medical equipment including a defibrillator, a portable ultrasound, a device for looking deep into the eye and two litres of saline.”

As NASA and other space agencies continue to make plans for a cislunar station and Martian base, it becomes more and more important for astronauts to be better trained and equipped to deal with medical emergencies.

Dr. Green says that the risk of an astronaut developing a serious illness and needing intensive care is only around 1 to 2 percent per person per year given how closely they are monitored, but that that still means that one is bound to happen at some point.

If the astronaut in question were located near Mars, there would be a communication delay of 20 minutes between the Red Planet and Earth — not exactly practical in an emergency. Even if one of the other astronauts were qualified to perform surgery, an operation in microgravity would be way more complicated than one on Earth because the blood and fluids would float about, obscure vision, and potentially infect non-medical equipment and other astronauts.

There is current research being done into the idea of placing a transparent dome over a wound to be filled with saline, which could isolate the area, slow bleeding and give a space doctor time to seal it up. NASA is also talking about robo-surgeons — their hope is that someday robots could either be remotely controlled from Earth or pre-programmed for complicated surgeries.

The types of challenges that astronauts face aren’t confined to space. Technology like the robo-surgeons could also be incredibly useful in remote or low-income areas on Earth. "Very cheap interventions [like telemedicine] can make a difference between life and death," Dr. Fred Papali, who works in critical care medicine at the University of Maryland and has spent time working in emergency wards in hospitals in Haiti and South Sudan, told the BBC.

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