TORONTO – He’s the doctor offering the media and millions of readers frequent updates on Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s health.
Dr. Raffi Kuyumjian was assigned to look after the nation’s popular astronaut since Hadfield was handed the five-month mission. Kuyumjian, a flight surgeon and the Canadian Space Agency’s chief medical officer, walked Hadfield through the preparations before boarding the ISS, monitored his health in zero gravity and is now taking on the last vital step: bringing Hadfield back to a full recovery.
The Quebec-based doctor has travelled to Texas and even Kazakhstan; it was months of long days of travel and irregular hours to keep on top of Hadfield’s health.
It’s Kuyumjian who writes the health memos posted to the CSA website. Kuyumjian thought it’d be a good idea and suggested it to Hadfield – as a duo, they decided how much detail would be included in the updates. So far, they’ve touched on Hadfield bumping into corners while walking, lingering dizziness and soreness in his back.
Kuyumjian’s final frontier in the mission is to get Hadfield through 45 days of reconditioning in the gym, for about two hours at a time. Hadfield has just passed his three-week mark since his return to Earth.
“It’s a program that’s adapted to each and every astronaut. It depends on what the individual needs are,” Kuyumjian told Global News.
Between all the medical testing and data collections for research, a two hour block of time is always etched out on Hadfield’s schedule to focus on his physical health.
“The idea is to exercise in order to improve all aspects of balance, flexibility, agility, coordination and strength,” he said.
The CSA, its Russian and European counterparts all have their own sets of methods, traditions and philosophies in nursing their space travellers back to health, too.
Two hours in the gym isn’t what you’re thinking: for the first few weeks, there isn’t any running or strenuous cardio.
For starters, Hadfield took on some light stretching while sitting down. That’s meant to revive the flexibility in his back and neck.
Initially, Hadfield had complained about back pain – he compared the feeling to getting off a ride at the CNE. The stretching, ideally, will help ease that discomfort.
During his first meeting with reporters, Hadfield said gravity felt like he was being tackled as he tried to do a sit up. Stretching for astronauts post-zero gravity isn’t a simple feat.
“Just lying down and not moving felt like he had a couple of people sitting on him,” Kuyumjian said. Now, imagine trying to lift your legs or arms, he suggests.
For balance and coordination, Hadfield takes on tasks such as standing with his eyes closed. When he’s aced that test, he moves on to standing on one foot for 10 seconds at a time. At first, Hadfield has to rely solely on visual cues, but soon he’ll find the equilibrium and shake off any wobbling.
“Every day we try to increase it – we try to see what they’re capable of and if their inner ear system is getting reacquainted with gravity.”
He practices throwing and catching a ball with his trainer, a CSA kinesiologist.
Standing for astronauts post space travel, is a challenge on its own. Lower legs aren’t used to pumping blood back up to the rest of the body.
In one instance, astronaut Heidi Stefanyshyn-Piper collapsed during a 2006 press conference for her return back to Earth.
This is why Hadfield started his cardio on a stationary bicycle. For about 10 to 15 minutes, he bikes to get his heart rate going.
Last Thursday, by the end of his second week of reconditioning, Hadfield made his way onto the treadmill. It’s built with support so he doesn’t feel the same level of shocks on his feet and hips.
In this case, other space agencies suggest their astronauts work out in a pool so their weight isn’t as heavy and overwhelming in the water.
Finally, Hadfield wraps up with strength training: lifting small weights and even bench pressing.
In space, astronauts had access to special treadmills, bikes and resistance training. In this aspect, Kuyumjian said Hadfield should be on par with his strength before the mission.
As for his diet, Hadfield is free to eat whatever he wants. There is some emphasis on regaining calcium and vitamin D for his bones, but doctors can’t go into the intimate details.
While Kuyumjian may have taken on a big responsibility in maintaining Hadfield’s health for the past few months, he’s modest about his success.
He’s worked as a flight surgeon with the European Space Agency and helped with the first Swedish astronaut to space. He’s an engineer and has also practiced family medicine in remote areas of Northern Quebec.
When asked what it is like to look after the now famous astronaut, Kuyumjian deflects the question.
“I think people don’t realize the effort that astronauts put into making sure they stay healthy when they’re certified to fly,” he told Global News.
Having astronauts return to Earth for an emergency medical evacuation is expensive, Kuyumjian says.
He said the “whole team” is celebrating its success, though.
“We’re not a big agency but we’re proud to have achieved this. It brings a great satisfaction.”
For now, Kuyumjian’s priority is monitoring the rest of Hadfield’s recovery. While the busy astronaut has flown to Russia for more debriefing and is exercising on his own this week, it could be at least three months until he’s back to normal.
Source: Global News