Informed by experience
Fong is not only a medical historian; he’s a British anesthetist who has treated patients in ERs, ICUs, helicopters, and even on the streets of London after a bomb explosion in Soho. The son of Chinese parents who immigrated to Mauritius, Fong studied astrophysics before his medical studies and, obsessed with spaceflight, he enrolled in aerospace studies at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, much-interested in the body’s response to spaceflight. He’s an associate director of the Centre for Altitude, Space, and Extreme Environment Medicine in London and has experience on the “Vomit Comet,” an Airbus designed to simulate weightlessness in space.
Fong describes the challenges inherent in our altered physiologic responses to space. Astronauts lose cardiac and skeletal muscle conditioning in space as well as bone mass. Once back on ground, they face further issues with faintness, sleep disturbance, nausea and vomiting, and transient disorientation.
Not only an author but an adventurer, Fong is familiar, first-hand, with the physiologic problems associated with scuba diving. Reef diving near Fiji, and swept away from fellow divers, he panicked and used up his oxygen supply surfacing to find his fellow divers. He spent an anxious night thereafter, worried about the possibility of decompression sickness.
As an author, Fong combines personal anecdotes regarding medical history in clear writing that emphasizes what we have learned about human physiology in diverse, extreme circumstances. He finds this journey comparable to our exploration of the planet in past centuries, which were remarkably risky endeavors, though we celebrate the discoveries rather than the legacy of loss. As prime example, Fong recalls the saga of Ferdinand Magellan, who set sail from Spain in 1519 with a fleet of five ships and a crew of 237. Magellan’s expedition met famine, disease, mutiny and conflict. Magellan himself perished, murdered in the Philippines. Only one of the five ships that started the journey made it home in 1522, three years post-departure, with a scant 18 of the original crew.
Fong concludes that it is human nature to explore bravely, without fear of consequences. “To be able to explore, we must continue to survive. But the reverse is also true. To survive, we must explore.” This may overstate things, but it is a compelling proposition. I’m mindful of T.S. Eliot’s lines, equally true, regarding the mystery of discovery:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.” (Little Gidding; 1942)
I recommend this book by Dr. Fong. It was a romp and an adventure – but one without the risk.
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