Surgical team simulates zero-gravity surgery

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The simulated operations were conducted on a Canadian research jet

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So far, astronauts haven't suffered medical problems much worse than a bad cold, but what about when the inevitable happens and someone needs surgery millions of miles from the nearest hospital? To seek answers, a surgical team recently carried out a simulated operation aboard a Canadian research jet designed to create weightless conditions.

Surgery on Earth is hard enough, but at least the patient and all his insides stay put thanks to gravity. In zero gravity, things get a lot more complicated – the patient needs to be secured, organs drift where they aren't supposed to, and blood could quickly become unmanageable.

It's one of those situations where hands-on experience is hard to come by, so a team lead by Major Andrew Kirkpatrick MD decided to experiment closer to home with a patient that isn't quite real.

The operation was conducted on June 26 about a Canadian National research Council Falcon 20 jet from Ottawa/Macdonald–Cartier International Airport, which flew in parabolic arcs similar to those flown by NASA's famous "vomit comet." During these arcs, when the plane is at its zenith, the passengers experience up to 30 seconds of weightlessness. During these moments, the US/Canadian surgical team carried out a proof-of-concept emergency laparotomy operation to treat a blunt trauma to the torso. This was selected because internal bleeding is relatively easy to treat, but is also very likely to be quickly fatal if unattended.

The "patient" in this case was a "Cut Suit" made by the Strategic Operations firm, which specializes in extremely realistic field simulations. In this case, the Cut Suit is a vest complete with internal organs and simulated blood that fits over the chest of an actor, who yells and generally carries on while the surgeon practices dealing with field trauma.

However, in this operation, the actor was replaced with a computer and a set of sensors that can detect the force of gravity. When the plane was weightless, pumps activated to simulate bleeding. When gravity returned, the pumps stopped and the operation was put on hold until the next weightless episode. The computer also kept track of flight data, blood loss, and other factors for late evaluation on the ground.

Meanwhile, the system also monitored sensors worn by the surgeons to record their physiological readings and cameras recorded the operation itself.

During the experiment, the team also tested a self-expanding foam developed to control bleeding.

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