If an emergency medical situation arises during a crewed trip to Mars, odds are that the astronauts helping out will have little medical training. Making things even more challenging, the astronauts will be far from home working only with the limited supplies on board — a task that would be difficult for even experienced doctors.
Astronauts could potentially break bones, develop blood clots, or find themselves dealing with other unexpected medical situations. Such scenarios have occurred in isolated environments, as when physician Jerri Nielsen found herself treating her own breast cancer after identifying a lump in her breast during winter at the South Pole’s scientific station in 1999. Before she could be airlifted to other medical care, she worked with a welder to perform a biopsy at the station and managed her own hormone and chemotherapy injections by conferencing with doctors in the US.
Astronauts dealing with a medical emergency in space would have to display similar resourcefulness.
“During these long duration flights, the estimated risk of severe medical and surgical events, as well as the risk of loss of crew life are significant.” said Matthieu Komorowski, a consultant in intensive care and anesthesia at London’s Charing Cross Hospital, in a statement. “The exposure to the space environment itself disturbs most physiological systems and can precipitate the onset of space-specific illnesses, such as cardiovascular deconditioning, acute radiation syndrome, hypobaric decompression sickness and osteoporotic fractures.”
For example, the microgravity environment of space tends to weaken bones over time, leading to osteoporotic fractures. Astronauts are also exposed to radiation and at risk for decompression sickness, given that they depend on a pressurized environment.