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Crew practices for space injuries

The Arctic Mars simulation crew practices techniques for medical evaluation — an exercise that requires patients to be patient.
/ Source: Mars Society

I lay there staring up at the narrow sliver of sky. The clouds I could see were lazily making their way north. After a while, two heads appeared, looking down at me through plastic shields. “How does it feel?” one of them asked through my radio headset. I nodded, unable to answer. I tried to move my arm, but it was snugly secured to my chest. I couldn’t feel the push-to-talk button, even if I could have moved my arm over to reach it. Then the heads disappeared, and the clouds began to move again.

THIS WAS the scene this afternoon outside the Hab. The heads belonged to Peter Lee and Jody Tinsley, and I was their patient in a medical simulation to test the stretcher Peter had designed and he and Ella Carlsson had built out of a broken chair. We ran several tests wearing EVA suits this afternoon to see what techniques worked best for a medical evacuation.

First we tried the fireman’s carry. After a few tries, it became clear that it was possible while wearing a suit to carry a victim who was also fully suited up — if the carrier were young, strong and a Taekwondo sixth-degree black belt master. Peter successfully carried Digby Tarvin and Jody in separate efforts, but there were several failures to report when other folks tried to duplicate this feat. EVA-suited rescuers fell to their knees giggling as they contorted their bodies into octopus shapes.

It wasn’t easy, Peter reported after his successful effort, and the condensation inside his helmet spoke more than his words to the energy he’d expended in his efforts. I kept an eye after that on people’s face shields, and the rescuers had trouble seeing all afternoon because of the condensation. Peter eventually ended up with only one section near his left eyebrow that was clear enough to see through, so he looked at us as the afternoon progressed with head tilted lower and lower and to the left.

The next task was a two-person carry. This is a technique in which two people can carry a seated person between them, sitting on their linked arms. We had big problems with this, as it’s extremely difficult to kneel and link arms with another person and still keep helmets far apart enough to allow another person to wedge his body between the carriers. And even when he’s wedged there, it’s awfully difficult to stand while wearing the backpacks and supporting the weight of the patient.

I tried and failed to lift Peter while linking arms with Digby — I kept tumbling forward, and Peter couldn’t ever really get positioned between us. After we ended up in a laughing heap yet again, I stood back finally and let someone with longer arms have a go.

Last, we did the stretcher carries. The stretcher, if you remember, can accommodate a person wearing full EVA gear — helmet, backpack and all. Digby was the first patient, and patient he had to be while we executed the maneuvers Peter ordered. Remember that we rescuers were wearing EVA suits, too. Tying knots, sliding straps through slots — these are difficult tasks in bulky gloves, and being able to see what we were doing through the visors was difficult.

First we had Digby lie face down, on his stomach. Then he and Jody positioned the stretcher over him, secured him to it (this took a while), and slowly turned him over on his back. We knew that he couldn’t lie on his back on the ground, as the backpack would be in the way, so Peter brought over a couple of toolboxes to support the weight of the ends of the stretcher. This worked well.

Peter’s idea was to put the stretcher — and the rescuers — through their paces, in both two- and four-man carries. We went through the same process twice, first with only two stretcher-carriers, and then with four. First, to test the straps that secured him, Peter had us lift Digby, move him away from the toolboxes, and then tilt him so that he hung side down to the ground. We tried this twice, once on each side, then carried him in a wide circle over easy (this is a relative term) and bouldered ground.

InsertArt(1971059)As I held the strap and moved along with the stretcher, I couldn’t watch where my feet were going and keep an eye on our patient as well. In spite of our best efforts, we stumbled in slow motion — lurching and tilting the stretcher in the process. This was no luxury ride. I could only imagine the running commentary we’d be hearing if Digby could reach his PTT (push-to-talk) button, but his arms were securely strapped. It’s probably just as well!

When it became my turn, I lay on my stomach and heard the voices talking around me. At that point, I became a patient, not a crew member, and felt the pressure of the straps being placed around me. Peter said they were ready, and soon I was lifted and rolled onto my back. He was right — the backpack fit through the space in the stretcher, and I lay there pretty comfortably.

He gathered the forces, and soon I had firsthand knowledge of “the tilt.” There’s a lot of trust involved when you’re a patient, and when my compatriots began talking about leaving me out there as polar bear bait and going in for supper, I felt a moment of panic: I was utterly helpless. But my panic soon subsided, both because I trust them, and because I remembered that I was on tonight’s cook crew.


Peter had saved one special exercise for me and my rescuers — they were to bring me into the air lock on the stretcher. This was a huge endeavor, as the steep steps and air lock were not designed to accommodate a person entering on a stretcher, carried by four EVA-suited rescuers. The two folks at my head propped me on the top step and moved around to open the door. The door is so low and small that a person has to stoop to get through it — for once, I wasn’t going to be in danger of bumping my head. My carriers, though, had to stoop and at the same time heft me through the door.

The whole task was made trickier by the fact that the stretcher was too long to lie flat in the air lock. Once I was mostly in, they had to hoist me and hold me vertical so that I’d be balanced while we waited for the repressurization sim. Putting five people in the air lock under any condition is like packing the proverbial can of sardines, but four rescuers and a person in a stretcher were a really tight fit.

At last we were given the go-ahead to enter the Hab. Someone opened the inner airlock door, and I was lowered and carted into the bright light of the EVA prep room. Rescue complete, my crewmates quickly began to loosen the straps that held me. Soon someone was helping me off with my helmet. We stopped a moment to cheer Peter’s planning and ingenuity before we wiggled out of our suits. Then quickly, I stripped off my suit, and Peter and I, physician and patient, climbed the stairs to start supper.