With the nearest medical experts some 250 miles and a spaceship ride away, astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) must be well trained in performing first aid and other important medical treatments.
But with microgravity making conditions on the station a little different from those down on terra firma, some of the response methods need to be adapted in order for them to be effective.
Take cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), a life-saving procedure that’s administered when someone’s heart stops beating. As most people know, it involves a series of chest compressions to keep the person’s blood circulating so that it continues oxygenating the organs, especially the brain, thereby preventing damage.
Current ISS inhabitant Samantha Cristoforetti recently shared a video with her one million Twitter followers that offer some insight into how CPR is administered in space.
— Samantha Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) September 2, 2022
To perform chest compressions on Earth, we use our body weight to apply pressure on the upper body. But in space, the absence of gravity makes it hard to do so, as the compression procedure would cause the astronaut to push themselves away from the person they’re trying to save.
Cristoforetti, who arrived at the orbiting outpost in April for a six-month stay, shows a couple of ways to get around this.
The first appears to be the Italian astronaut’s own unique method — by moving to an upside-down position and placing her feet on the surface of the station to give her the ability to push down. Of course, the astronaut has to be a certain height for this method to work.
The second method uses a strap on the side of the station’s CPR bed. The person conducting CPR places the belt around their body to stay securely in place so they can effectively apply pressure.
There are also at least three other ways to perform CPR in microgravity conditions. The Evetts-Russomano method, for example, involves the responder positioning their legs in a way that allows their ankles to interlock in the center of the patient’s back so they generate force on their chest for the compressions without pushing themselves away.
There’s also the reverse bearhug technique where the responder wraps their arms around the patient from behind to perform the compressions. Finally, the waist straddle involves the responder sitting astride the patient, with straps ensuring they stay secure.
To deal with a situation such as cardiac arrest, the ISS is also equipped with an automated external defibrillator that uses electric shocks to return a person’s heart rhythm to its normal state.
To date, neither CPR nor AED treatment has had to be used on the International Space Station. However, with long-duration missions to the moon and Mars on the cards, and an increase in civilian orbital flights resulting in more people of varied age and fitness heading to space, there’s an increasing chance of a medical emergency occurring far from Earth.
With that in mind, NASA and its partners will continue to ensure that emergency medical training is a major part of an astronaut’s training.
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