Making Personal Health a Top Priority

From learning about noctilucent clouds to an unexpected ride to the emergency room, last week was a whirlwind of emotion and self-reflection.

What happened?

Last week I attended the Advance PoSSUM Academy course in Dayton Beach. Students travelled from all over the world to be a part of this course and it felt amazing to have been selected to be among such incredibly talented individuals. The course was designed to teach the students about atmospheric sciences and how to conduct mesospheric research on-board suborbital spacecraft.

Day 1

The first day was spent sitting in the classroom learning about remote sensing, solar mechanics, noctilucent clouds, and pressurized spacesuit safety. With only a few short breaks and lunch, we basically were in our seats for a majority of the day. Except for the weight of a full day of lectures, I felt great. Everyone in the course was awesome and we were all having a total blast.

Day 2

The next morning started early with lectures on space physiology and life support systems. Throughout the lecture my back began to feel sore, but I chalked it up to the hard and uncomfortable chairs. The day progressed and we hopped in a van and set out to a facility to participate in hypoxia training. Again, my back was sore, but I didn’t think much of it.

I was one of the first people to go into the hypobaric chamber. When I got out of the chamber my back really began to feel sore. I sat down to eat some lunch and I could feel the muscles giving out one by one. It was getting harder to bend over and I could barely pick anything up. After everyone completed their hypoxia training, we sat and listened to another lecture on pressurized spacesuit donning and doffing and g-force training. When the lecture completed, I noticed I couldn’t stand up easily.

We decided to go to a local Cuban restaurant for dinner and I noticed my health deteriorating quickly. I went from walking into the restaurant to being unable to walk out on my own. I also began to have sciatic pain shooting down both legs. Things were getting bad. At that time, I asked the instructor if I could skip the nighttime guest speaker and to get dropped off at the hotel.

When we arrived at the hotel I could no longer walk. I needed two people to help me through the lobby and up to my room. It was unbelievable how quickly things fell apart. Once in the room, I made it to the bed and felt as though I could control the pain with my body position. My stubborn self thought I could get up and waddle my way to the restroom, that’s when it went from manageable to unbearable.

When I got up to go to the restroom, I went in and shut the door. In that moment my back muscles experienced an intense spasm and I found myself collapsing to the floor. The pain was excruciating. In that moment lying on the floor, all I could think about was getting back to the bed would stop the pain. What I didn’t realize was that when I fell to the ground I had blocked the door. I was unable to move because of the pain and now I couldn’t open the door. I was stuck.

In that moment I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to get out of the bathroom and nobody else would be able to get in to help me. That fear turned into determination and through the pain I shimmied my body enough to open the door. I slid my body across the floor and eventually made it back up on the bed. That process took about 30 minutes, all the energy I had, and pain like I had never felt before in my life. That’s when the muscle spasms kicked in.

The muscle spams began to occur unpredictably and there was no position I could lay in to make them stop. Luckily my amazing roommate returned to the room and was able to call the instructors and together we all made the decision to call an ambulance. In parallel they were able to help me get in touch with my husband who happened to be in Florida at the same time for other reasons.

The EMS crew arrived, gave me enough pain medicine to get on a stretcher and off to the hospital. They were helpful and extremely careful with me to make sure I was in the least amount of pain possible. At the hospital the doctor determined the hypobaric chamber was not the cause of the incident and that it just happened to coincide with that day’s activities. After a couple of hours and many painkillers and muscle relaxers later, I was released from the hospital and returned to the hotel. In the following days I had plenty of time to reflect about the experience and what may have caused this chain of events.

Lessons Learned

After deep contemplation, I came to the conclusion that I let school and work take priority over my health. I realized I stopped working out as often, I was sitting for hours at a time without getting up and stretching, and I got lazy with my eating habits. Add those three things up and voila, a recipe for weak and tight lower back. I had primed my body for a back incident and didn’t even realize it.

Another lesson learned was that this type of injury and emergency would not be good if it happened in space. The NASA astronaut selection process would have grounds to disqualy a candidate if they had a history of back problems. I can completely empathize with this requirement. If this did happen to someone on a long-duration space mission, I imagine it could be managed with pain medicine and the help of microgravity. The medical risks should be examined before flight qualification and readiness is determined. The last thing I would want is to find myself in space, with nowhere to go, and in unbearable pain. This would be myself and the crew at risk. An important personal realization about crew health and safety within the future space tourism and commercial space industries.

What’s Next?

This experience gave me new insight into what changes I need to make and how I will implement them. Today I am headed to my family doctor to see about next steps (ie. specialist, physical therapy, and any other recommendations) and I started tracking my eating habits. I will also begin targeted exercises to loosen and strengthen the muscles in my lower back, hips, gluts, and hamstrings. I have a lot of work to do, but I have time to get it all straightened out.

One positive outcome of this experience was the support and care of the PoSSUM Academy students and instructors. I felt a true sense of community surrounding the situation. They even offered for me to return in the fall to complete the course, a true testament to the organizational culture of PoSSUM. I am determined to get back to Daytona Beach for the next course in prime health and ready to go.

With the PoSSUM Academy course in October and Everest Base Camp trek in November, I have a lot of work to do to make sure my body is ready for that kind of strain. These activities are a huge part of the personal transformation I am seeking and only I can make sure I am ready to take them on.

Competence means keeping your head in a crisis, sticking with a task even when it seems hopeless, and improvising good solutions to tough problems when every second counts. It encompasses ingenuity, determination and being prepared for anything.

~ Chris Hadfield,

Former Canadian Space Agency Astronaut

Featured image is when I was in the hypobaric chamber getting ready to go through hypoxia training. Photo Credit: Yvette Gonzales

About the author

Erin Bonilla

Erin Bonilla is pursuing a master's degree in Adventure Education with a concentration in the psychosocial components of human spaceflight selection and training. She believes that through the development of a baseline approach to behavioral health within the astronaut selection process we can minimize long term psychosocial challenges and increase participant enjoyment.

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By Erin Bonilla

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