NASA astronaut Dr. Serena Aunon recently paid a visit to UTMB, a kind of homecoming to the place where she completed her residency in internal medicine, including a year as chief resident, as well as a residency in aerospace medicine.
She was on campus to lend support and encouragement to Will Widener and David Sarmiento, participants in a 70-day bed rest study that mimics the effect of zero gravity on a body.
The study for NASA was taking place in the Flight Analog Research Unit at UTMB.
“We learn a tremendous amount from astronauts and their experiences aboard the International Space Station,” said Dr. Aunon. “But overall, those numbers are small and a larger body of evidence is needed. Head-down bed rest is one of our best analogs. The women and men who volunteer to take part as subjects in the bed rest facility at UTMB provide invaluable data regarding physiologic changes in a “weightless” environment.”
NASA has learned that putting subjects in bed and keeping them there, with their heads tilted down at a six-degree angle, mimics the physical effects of zero gravity on the body. While studies differ in research goals and duration, they all have one thing in common – subjects remain in bed at a tilt, 24/7. Everything, and they do mean everything, takes place in this position.
At first glance, the research unit looks like most hospital units: rooms equipped with hospital beds clustered around a central nursing station. But further exploration reveals its specialized purpose. There’s a kitchen designed to produce meals that are exquisitely calibrated for nutritional content; a shower room big enough to wheel in a bed; and an exercise room that is out-of-this world, or at least designed to simulate that environment. From weights to squats to running - on the vertical treadmill - all exercise is done in a supine position.
Widener, 42, a fitness instructor from North Carolina and Sarmiento, 35, a commercial diver from Baltimore, heard about the studies and after testing, took to their beds.
“My grandmother told me ‘you’ll never be able to stay in bed 14 days, let alone 70,’” said Widener, who concedes he misses coffee, chocolate and spices.
Sarmiento, the youngest of six, said he’s taken a lot of ribbing from his siblings. He’s also developed a greater appreciation of astronauts and weightlessness.
“It’s very demanding - not just physically but mentally,” said Sarmiento. “I have a greater understanding of the physical effects of zero gravity. It’s not just floating. It affects your whole body.”
The men exercise six times a week and undergo a battery of measuring tests from blood work to muscle biopsies. Both believe in the contribution they’re making to science and how it may help astronauts in future voyages.
“NASA astronauts recognize how difficult it is for these subjects to remain in bed rest for long periods of time,” said Aunon. “But these women and men provide excellent research data regarding bone and muscle loss, fluid and vasculature changes, and other variables.”
“I once served as a physician monitor for these bed rest patients,” she added. “Now, as an astronaut, I realize how their sacrifices contribute to the safety of my colleagues as we live and work in space.”
All photographs courtesy of Jennifer Reynolds, Galveston County Daily News