September 18, 2008
The Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, Chicago, Illinois, USA
The magnificent Chicago skyline welcomed SLS faculty and guests to an incredible evening in extreme environments–soaring in space above the Earth and swimming in the depths of the Earth’s ocean.
Sailboats sliced through Lake Michigan’s calm waters as SLS faculty and guests arrived for this special event at the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, which sits along Lake Michigan near Soldier Field and the Chicago Field Museum. It was founded in 1930 by Max Adler and contains astronomical and planetarium artifacts dating from the 12th through the 20th centuries. It is the largest of its kind in the western hemisphere.
After touring the museum, faculty and guests enjoyed food, fun, and conversations with fellow SLS members and guests, then were awed by footage of space travel and the International Space Station and surgery in the depths of the ocean.
Imagine doing surgery from any position even while floating upside down or having a few-second delay from the time you move the arm of a surgical robot to the time the instrument performs the action in the patient. These are among the experiences that Dave R. Williams, MD, shared during his talk “Telerobotic Surgery in Extreme Environments.” Williams, a Canadian native, has made 2 space flights to the International Space Station, one in 1998 the other in 2007, and 3 space walks. He has also participated in the NEEMO missions in the ocean and is the first Canadian to do both.
Today’s astronaut, said Williams, need not be a person with a military background. Today’s astronauts come from various fields, including medicine, education, and science. Surgery is being attempted in space as a way of preparing for a future flight to Mars, which will require three years of space travel. However, as in military deployments, medical care may be provided in space by a team member who is not a physician but who has training in wilderness medicine. Thus far, no humans have been operated on in space, only animals such as rats. During space travel, astronauts practice minimally invasive exercises on each other. Zero gravity causes changes to the human body, resulting in physiological challenges. Astronauts must learn ways to cope with these physiological changes before successful surgery can be performed in space. Astronauts are trying to understand the human body parts, including blood, which are altered in space. Other challenges include working in microgravity where everything must be restrained or it will float around, so astronauts must learn to work with instruments that are tied down in some way or that float around. By 2020, it is hoped that man will be able to return to the moon. One NEEMO mission included robotic telesurgery in which a physician in Canada performed a medical exercise using a simulator housed in a NEEMO facility deep underwater. This exercise provided practice in telesurgery, which may become necessary during long flights in outer space. As mankind advances toward exploring the universe, it is important to be able to provide medical care to astronauts, just as it is necessary to care for wounded soldiers in far off countries. Telesurgery with the use of robots and telementoring in extreme environments are vital for safety in future space exploration.
by Ann Conti Morcos, MA, ELS