The Accidental Astronaut

Just When You Thought It was Safe to Take Off The Spacesuit….

Welcome back! Let’s stay in and chat for a while…

…Hello spacefriends! It has been a minute. Since we last hung out, I’ve been on the run-in a good way. I’ve been doctoring, mostly.* These days, I help people who have been through terrible accidents and traumas learn to walk and talk and dress and eat: regain as much function as possible before they go back into the world.

My patients are learning how to adapt to the world with their new set of capabilities. It’s what we all do, all the time – as we age, or get injured, or start to carry around a small child – we adapt, adjust, relearn, redefine. What’s most important in life becomes rapidly apparent. The simple ability to stand from sitting, cross a room, wash your hands, eat something, use the restroom…is the easiest sequence of things in the world, until it isn’t. My patient struggle for weeks to regain the ability to do these things. When they leave the hospital, many still need assistance for basic tasks of every living like eating and dressing.

That’s when the most important thing in the world becomes obvious: the people we have in our lives. They are the world we live in. Often, there’s so much else going on that we forget. Once everything slows down, once we need help, once we are home and in the presence of those we love and care for, and who care for us, for more than just a few hours, how much of the world they true comprise becomes evident.**

After three years in the hospital, I was looking forward to spending a little more time at home with my favorite mammals. And then, RIGHT THEN… a nasty little 0.1-micron-sized jerk with a squishy lipid bilayer came around and BAM. I now live in the hospital. And you all are trapped at home.


Fortunately, science has a series of fixes. These are stopgaps: things we can to do slow down spread ad decrease how many people get directly hurt by this virus while we work on treatments and cures. Doctors everywhere are getting a lot of questions from our friends and family – and other doctors – about what to do. I’m a spacedoc and a rehab doc. I defer to the experts in these matters: the CDC, the infectious disease specialists, and my colleagues in occupational medicine. I’ll do my utmost to post the answers to the questions I’m getting here for ease of access. Like landing a rover on Mars, the medical community is aiming our efforts at a rapidly moving target. Unlike Mars, we don’t have centuries of data to tell us where the target is going to be and when.

Long story short, I’d rather be landing on Mars. But here we are: the accidental astronauts. Looking for ways to stay healthy and sane in a dangerous environment, to dress protectively before we go out, and to communicate with each other from afar. Both times I signed up to do this, I was on a mission. One with no internet, alcohol, or real-time communication with the outside world. THIS TIME, none of us signed up for this- BUT, we have all those things. You can talk to those you love on the phone or by video. You can teach or take an online class. You can open the window and feel the air and sun on your skin. Your stint as an accidental astronaut comes complete with choices that we never had. We made it 366 days straight. YOU GOT THIS.

Last thought for the first post in a long time since “returning to Earth”: Not once in either of my missions did I consider leaving, walking out the airlock and not looking back. Not when the food, the water, or the power ran low on sim Mars. Not when my father was attacked and sent to the hospital. Not the day my grandmother died or the day of her funeral. When the fire alarm went off and mission control said, “Standby, HERA – that’s NOT US.” I put my fire mask on and waited. It never occurred to me to do anything else.

Though I am apparently wired to die a fiery death on command, there is one thing it seems I cannot do: stay locked in a bubble during a global pandemic. NOPE! Sorry Mission control. If I were in a sim right now, I would take a knee, kiss the ground, apologize to my crew, bless mission control for the chance, and as the Universe is my witness I would walk right out that airlock door. The service I am wired to do for humankind, that I’ve given years of my life for, is right here on Earth, right now. On the front lines. Mask on, gloves on. It was an honor and duty to serve in simulated space. It is an honor and a duty to serve now. All I hope for in this is a better tomorrow for all of us. So please, from one astronaut-type to another:

Take this seriously. Stay 6 feet away from others. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face when outside. And take care of each other. If you happen to have a large amount of personal protective equipment hanging around: bring it to those of us on the front lines. We’ll put it to good use saving as many as we can.

Welcome to Mars, people. It’s a little weird here. But you’ll get used to it…

*Yeah well, you know me. MOSTLY is a VERY broad term. There are been a few TedX talks; a few very cool public demonstrations; a few rockets; a bunch of science; and a lot of begging Bob the Martian bread culture to PLEASE PLEASE work at sea level. More on all that later!

** IF it doesn’t, please find a new world. IMMEDIATELY.

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