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Medicine Space

What Happens If You Have a Heart Attack In Space? 83

Posted by Soulskill
from the dr.-mccoy-will-fix-it dept.
An anonymous reader sends this story about medical research in zero-gravity environments. Many earth-based treatments need to be adapted for use in space, and anatomical behaviors can change in subtle and unpredictable ways as well. This research aims to protect astronauts and future generations of space-goers from conditions that are easily treatable on the ground. The ultrasound machine the students are testing would be well suited for space missions. It is light and compact, requires very little medical training to use, and the probe can stay in the body for 72 hours at a time. But the technology has only ever been used on Earth, and no one knows whether it would function correctly in zero gravity. The most significant concern is that microgravity will cause the probe to drift out of position. The team's mentor, cardiac surgeon and space medicine specialist Peter Lee, tells me that an ultrasound probe that sits in the esophagus is an ideal diagnostic tool for extended spaceflights. "If an astronaut far from Earth were to have a cardiovascular event, or for some reason became incapacitated and had to be on a ventilator, there's no imaging currently available [in space] that provides continuous images of the heart," he says. "You can use [external] ultrasound, but the technician has to be there the whole time to hold it on the chest."
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What Happens If You Have a Heart Attack In Space?

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  • Today? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Known Nutter (988758) on Tuesday June 24, 2014 @10:12PM (#47311879)
    You've got yourself a serious set of problems any number of which will kill you, including the heart attack.
  • I'm thinking first world problems here.

    Find the pause button on your forks folks.

    • Re:Hm (Score:5, Funny)

      by geekoid (135745) <dadinportland @ y a hoo.com> on Tuesday June 24, 2014 @10:21PM (#47311929) Homepage Journal

      what, you mean all those obese astronauts?

      • by Dcnjoe60 (682885)

        what, you mean all those obese astronauts?

        Obesity adds to the probability that one might experience a heart attack, but the non-obese are not immune. There are approximately 720,000 heart attacks in the US each year. But one's weight is only one risk factor and not even the largest one. Autopsies on soldiers killed in Vietnam showed that many of those 18 to 20 year olds, who were in very good physical condition had 20% blockage of their coronary arteries. Believing that heart attacks only impact the obese is why so many people ignore the signs of

    • I thought underweight is a better predictor, like in a BMI of 18 (healthy) is more morbid than a BMI of 36 (morbidly obese)
  • huh (Score:4, Insightful)

    by msauve (701917) on Tuesday June 24, 2014 @10:20PM (#47311925)
    If, after going through space flight qualification screening, you still have a heart attack - you would have died on the ground anyways. Count it as the last checkmark on your bucket list.
    • Re:huh (Score:4, Interesting)

      by geekoid (135745) <dadinportland @ y a hoo.com> on Tuesday June 24, 2014 @10:22PM (#47311933) Homepage Journal

      You don't know that.. Going to space may have been what set it off.

      • by msauve (701917)
        Maybe. If you're one of the hundreds of people (out of billions) who have had the opportunity to go into space, count your lucky stars while you're there.

        None have diied of a heart attack so far, and there's no reason for the great unwashed to fund research/technology to handle some future hypothetical event. If that's an issue for you, simply don't volunteer. No one has ever been forced onto a ride to space, non-humans excluded.
        • by EzInKy (115248)

          None have diied of a heart attack so far, and there's no reason for the great unwashed to fund research/technology to handle some future hypothetical event. If that's an issue for you, simply don't volunteer. No one has ever been forced onto a ride to space, non-humans excluded.

          Exactly! It way too early to worry about anything except perhaps to screen out those most likely to have an MI during spaceflight.

      • by EzInKy (115248)

        Then that is where research should be focused, how to better screen those who are apt to have a heart attack in space. Better biometric data recorders ;perhaps?

      • by gstoddart (321705)

        Except, by the time a space agency is going to send you into space, your vitals have been measured 75 different ways, on numerous occasions, over an extended period of time. And then done over and over again.

        If an astronaut had a heart attack in space -- every test available to modern medicine which was performed on them missed it as being probable. It costs way too much money to send people into space to miss things like that.

        So, if all of that stuff missed it, and you had one, I should think it may well

    • I think it is more like. If, after going through space flight qualification screening, you still have a heart attack, some very serious shit must be going down. If you are at that pinnacle of health, it would pretty much require a shock to your heart to throw it off its rhythm.
    • Re:huh (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Sasayaki (1096761) on Tuesday June 24, 2014 @10:44PM (#47312029)

      It's actually not about that. It's about not having a corpse up in space.

      Seriously. A dead body is a significant biohazard and in the cramped, oxygen rich, closed-system environment of a spaceship having a corpse floating around is a serious biohazard. That thing's not going to stay in one piece; it's going to rot, break up, liquefy, and all in zero gravity.

      If the crew starts breathing in dead guy, they too are in a lot of trouble.

      These ships don't have a morgue or any way to properly dispose of a body. Although the idea of a "burial in space" is appealing, by simply casting the body out into the void, the problem is that this has its own problems. Assuming the vehicle's crew are capable of spacewalks, and they may not be, it's an unplanned excursion which takes up a surprising amount of resources, most notably time. Sure, the body would burn up for most vehicles -- the shuttle sees a temperature of around 1500 C for 15 to 20 minutes which I'm confident would do the job -- but it's a non-trivial exercise. They can't just open the window and toss 'em out.

      Then there are the side effects, on crew morale least of all (the types of people picked for these missions tend to be hardy, very pragmatic folk who understand the risks and more than intelligent enough to realise this event was completely unavoidable and they're in no danger), but to the ground crew morale (who often feel extremely protective of the crew and are often, it's said, more nervous and frightened than the actual crew themselves), and to the broader space program in general.

      There's also the broader financial implications. Training astronauts is EXPENSIVE. Research on keeping them alive, especially if such research can lead to other medical breakthroughs, is money well spent. Sure, that one guy is never going to fly into space again, but the ground crew for any mission is vast and tends to include other former astronauts. If he dies up there, we lose his experience and skills set, which we've paid a lot of good money for.

      • Re:huh (Score:4, Interesting)

        by viperidaenz (2515578) on Tuesday June 24, 2014 @11:26PM (#47312197)

        Shove them in a big zip-lock bag. Rot contained.
        Make it opaque, so no one can see dead rotting guy.

        • by mjwx (966435)

          Shove them in a big zip-lock bag. Rot contained.
          Make it opaque, so no one can see dead rotting guy.

          That sounds like its a good idea until someone opens the bag to make sure Frank was really dead.

          • by Threni (635302)

            If you want to make sure he's dead, chuck him out of the nearest airlock!

            • by GNious (953874)

              yeah, I'm thinking, "Use the OUTSIDE of the spacestation as cold-storage for any corpses"...

        • by Sasayaki (1096761)

          Does your average voyage contain a zip-lock bag big enough to house a body?

          Weight is a huge concern for space voyages. It's something like $10,000 a pound. Quite a lot for a even a simple bag that doesn't have a dual, or tri, purpose.

          I know nuclear submarines don't have airtight bags big enough to hold a body and they're much more free with what they can bring aboard. I was reading an article about one where a guy, what do you know, had a heart attack and died while they were submerged for a long duration.

          • Does your average voyage contain a zip-lock bag big enough to house a body?

            Weight is a huge concern for space voyages. It's something like $10,000 a pound. Quite a lot for a even a simple bag that doesn't have a dual, or tri, purpose.

            I know nuclear submarines don't have airtight bags big enough to hold a body and they're much more free with what they can bring aboard. I was reading an article about one where a guy, what do you know, had a heart attack and died while they were submerged for a long duration. They ended up having a "feast" as a wake, because they cleared out one of the food freezers and chucked him in there.

            Yes, the big zip-lock back is called a space suit and most missions will have several onboard.

      • They have an airlock for a reason, dude. They can "just toss the body out the window".

        All of the other problems you mention are in no way unique to astronauts; you would get the same problem in an IT field.

      • If I was lucky enough to get in space (and die in the process), I would be honored to have a space funeral, be it launched into space, back to earth and burn up in the atmosphere, or launched into a photon torpedo while Saavik cries...

      • Re:huh (Score:5, Insightful)

        by ColdWetDog (752185) on Tuesday June 24, 2014 @11:55PM (#47312307) Homepage

        If you think that there isn't a file somewhere in the depths of the Manned Flight Operations Manual (or whatever idiot acronym that NASA gives it) detailing exactly what you are supposed to do with a dead body, you're crazy.

        They've thought of things you haven't thought of to think of.

        Death is a pretty obvious one.

        • by jd2112 (1535857)

          If you think that there isn't a file somewhere in the depths of the Manned Flight Operations Manual (or whatever idiot acronym that NASA gives it) detailing exactly what you are supposed to do with a dead body, you're crazy.

          They've thought of things you haven't thought of to think of.

          Death is a pretty obvious one.

          Ground Control to Major Tom,
          Your circuit's dead. Is something wrong?
          Can you hear me Major Tom?
          Can you hear me Major Tom?

        • Soylent Green...in SPACE! That's one way to advance recycling technology.

      • by Issarlk (1429361)
        If only they had some sort of airtight full body suit up there in their spaceship. They could put the dead body in it until they can dispose of it. That's really too bad the dozen (hundreds?) of scientists and engineer didn't think about it.
      • by Dcnjoe60 (682885)

        The other issue is to consider is long term space travel. It is likely that if space missions are for years, that people may die for any number of reasons, not just a heart attack. In addition, when people die, it usually isn't a nice clean thing. It's not just decay, which takes some time, but also that various orifices open and what they were holding back is let loose. In the closed environment of a space ship, you simply can't just mop up the mess, particularly in micro-gravity.

      • by MTEK (2826397)
        But it doesn't have to be a problem. If engineers can figure out a way to recycle urine . . .
      • Another problem with the simply ejecting a body into space is that of collisions. It isn't something that has any kind of propellant. Explosively decompressing an airlock isn't going to give it all that much of a velocity. That icy 100kg body is going to be wiping around earth at 17,000km/h, and would do all kinds of damage to anything it comes in contact with. In addition, I would imagine that doing so might also require course corrections, equal and opposite reaction and all of that. For any kind of durat

      • by PJ6 (1151747)

        Sure, the body would burn up for most vehicles -- the shuttle sees a temperature of around 1500 C for 15 to 20 minutes which I'm confident would do the job

        According to Randall Munroe [xkcd.com], the corpse wouldn't burn up on re-entry.

  • by oldhack (1037484)
    You die.
  • no one can hear you scream "I'm having a heart attack!" Right now, you'd probably die if it was severe enough. Honestly, I think the higher risk would be from a stroke; zero-g might cause random blood clots to dislodge. The article doesn't mention this device actually getting deployed yet; their still testing it on the Vomit Comet. After what our guys did during Apollo 18 though, I'll put money down on them fabricating some type of defibrillator from the ISS itself. Since your in free-fall zero G, you
  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Tuesday June 24, 2014 @10:48PM (#47312041) Journal
    Would there be any substantial anatomical issues presented by cracking the subject open and implanting a failover heart (maybe a pediatric one, to save weight, and since it's not the base-load heart or anything) if you are so worried about the primary one conking out?

    I can see that transporting an entire failover astronaut, and getting him to swiftly and effectively take over the tasks abandoned by his dying comrade, might present payload capacity and psychological issues; but if it's just an extra heart and nobody dies, those should be substantially mitigated...
    • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Wednesday June 25, 2014 @12:00AM (#47312339) Homepage

      Other than the fact that it has never been done, no problemo. Space is not exactly where you are supposed to do cutting edge (please excuse the pun) medical research. You have clearly never dealt with an Institutional Review Board [wikipedia.org] or you wouldn't think to bring up such silly ideas.

      Next, you'll want to send lawyers into space, just to see if they really need to breath oxygen.

      • Oh, I was thinking of doing it preemptively, before they left, rather than trying to operate in space (Just imagine all the horrid blood globules floating merrily around the OR in zero gravity, and probably ending up hiding behind important instrument panels... Loathsome).

        We already aggressively train and screen the humans we send into the harsh environment of space. Should we be planning to do anything more ambitious, or risky, it seems only logical to consider sending better-than-humans, rather than en
  • by istartedi (132515)

    The first chest compression might work a bit, but then you go flying across the room. The shock from hitting the bulkhead might provide another stimulation to the heart, but after that you'd probably just roll up into a ball or something and drift around a bit. Of course none of the other astro/cosmo/($silly_name_for_each_country)nauts would be so foolish as to do it that way, so I don't know why I mentioned it... maybe because it seemed funny at that particular instant.

    Of course they'd pin you to the wal

    • by necro81 (917438)

      The first chest compression might work a bit, but then you go flying across the room. The shock from hitting the bulkhead might provide another stimulation to the heart, but after that you'd probably just roll up into a ball or something and drift around a bit.

      The Hollywood fairy tale of CPR, or a sudden thump to the chest, causing someone's heart to start beating again is just that - a fairy tale. Even today, with CPR knowledge relatively widespread, most people that have a heart attack (i.e., the heart

  • "You can use [external] ultrasound, but the technician has to be there the whole time to hold it on the chest."

    Use a strap.

    Why wasn't that the follow-up question?

  • by DanDD (1857066) on Tuesday June 24, 2014 @11:28PM (#47312207)

    From Wikipedia on James Irwin [wikipedia.org] :

    The astronauts' physiological vital signs were being monitored back on Earth, and the Flight surgeons noticed some irregularities in Irwin's heart rhythms.[9] Irwin's heart had developed bigeminy.[10] Dr. Charles Berry stated to Chris Kraft, deputy director of the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) at the time: "It's serious, [i]f he were on Earth. I'd have him in ICU being treated for a heart attack."[10] Endeavour's cabin atmosphere was 100% oxygen when in space, so it was decided that he was in no serious danger by Dr. Charles Berry.[10] Specifically, "In truth,...he's in an ICU. He's getting one hundred percent oxygen, he's being continuously monitored, and best of all, he's in zero g. Whatever strain his heart is under, well, we can't do better than zero g."

    • Funny thing is now we would ignore it. We used to get excited about bigeminy and did all sorts of dangerous, useless things. Now it's just used to scare medical students.

  • At this stage of the game it would probably make more sense to limit space travel to those with the lowest risk factors rather than waste money on treatment. First and foremost, research today should be 100% geared to how to successfully and consistently move humans from this planet to another. Treatments for the less than healthy can wait until that is accomplished.

  • There are already tons of things that can kill you on the ground. Medical professionals should focus on those, rather than the tiny fraction of human beings who will ever have a chance to experience space travel.
  • Where would they put your corpse?
    • by JazzLad (935151)
      I thought it was established that the body was put in a photon torpedo tube & shot out into space ...
  • I'm a doctor, not a theorist.
  • I have never given that much thought, but why wouldn't they fit them with a wearable defibrillator? That would at least help with V-tach and V-Fib situations. Though I'm not sure those operate in zero gravity either.

  • I tested free fall on my cat scanner for 5 seconds and it's now completely non-functional. Nearly free fall I should say, a little net gravitational force on it near the 5 second mark due to air resistance.

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