by Laura Piper
The elite individuals are taking part in World Extreme Medicine.
When a solar storm hits your space shuttle while you’re orbiting the earth through icy stars Dr Michael Barratt is the man you want on board.
An experienced Nasa flight surgeon, Michael was launched through the atmosphere to support two spacewalks for the final mission of SS Discovery and spent 199 days as the chief medical officer on the International Space Station.
He’s one of an elite team of medical professionals spearheading the practice of extreme medicine, from the jungles of South America to the frontline of war.
“I’m a space guy,” says Michael cheerfully. “My passion is the adapted physiology of people in space. What our bodies can do up there is really quite amazing.”
Back on base at Nasa in Houston, Texas, 57-year-old Michael is currently packing his bags on earth for his next mission though – to a unique conference about to be held in Scotland for the first time called World Extreme Medicine.
Joining him are some of the most dynamic medical practitioners in the world, including surgeons who have operated in the war zones of Sarajevo and Syria, remote first aiders who cope with sharks, polar bears and the ocean depths, along with trauma medics more used to glaciers and freezing mountain peaks.
“It began around a campfire in Namibia,” explains World Extreme Medicine founder Mark Hannaford.
“I was out there on an expedition and realised how useful it would be to have a course that could train doctors for working in difficult environments.”
Mark knew instinctively that communication would be key, building networks between doctors and adventurous souls that could lead to improved standards in remote, disaster and humanitarian medicine.
Out of it came a gathering in London, then Harvard University in Boston, of intrepid pioneers in medicine mixed with extreme explorers all with one common denominator – “It’s the remoteness,” says astronaut Michael Barratt.
“It’s people working out in places with limited resources and unique medical problems. In all of these places you have to approach each case with resourcefulness, technology and study and I think it’s an important aspect of this conference.
“Just because it’s remote and exotic doesn’t mean you can’t be academic about it.”
Zoologists studying the way geese can adjust their bodies to altitude change suddenly found themselves in front of the gleaming eyes of doctors working at high altitudes to save the lives of patients.
“For doctors, because they’re generally quite focused on their specialism, they’ve maybe never spoken to a zoologist,” explains Mark.
“There’s a whole word of this type of stuff and knowledge that can be shared.
“There might be some people in the audience of course who are wondering why we’re talking about frogs, but some people will think ‘that’s bloody brilliant! What can we learn from that?’
“There’s such a massive passion that comes out of it.”
A strong contingent of Scots will be at the event in Edinburgh, including doctor Andrew Murray who has worked for the Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth Games.
When not working in elite sport medicine, Edinburgh based Andrew has run 4,300km from Scotland to the Sahara desert, placed first in the North Pole Marathon, the Antarctic Ice Marathon and the Gobi Challenge and completed a husky trek in -40C in Outer Mongolia.
“I think it’s absolutely fantastic that it’s coming to Edinburgh,” says Andrew.
“We’ve got some incredible speakers and adventurers here in Scotland and it’s great to welcome more over to share tales from the likes of the North Pole and the Sahara desert.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to visit some of the most extreme and beautiful parts of the world as a doctor and I’m looking forward to hearing other’s stories.”
The event will take place at Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh from November 18 and the team are hopeful that Scotland’s next generation of ground breaking doctors will be there.
“We learn from each other, I learn things from others that would never even cross my mind,” says Michael Barratt.
“When I’m not speaking, I’m out there taking notes from the others as fast as I can.
“Some of these guys are people no-one will have heard of but know of so much we need to hear, working on the frontline of war with mass causalities on limited resources.”
The organisers have deliberately chosen Edinburgh as place where there is a large base of elite medical students and young doctors.
“One of the delights is passing what we’ve learned on to them and hearing their own ideas which would never have crossed our mind,” says Michael.
“Edinburgh has so much to offer us and the advancement of medical practice.”
Michael in particular will be there to speak on the human ability to cope in space, especially in the run up to the future mission to Mars.
“There’s going to be more not less space flight in the future as the commercial world starts to heat up,” says Michael.
“Especially for the younger medics, we hope some will follow on the path as well.”
Founder Mark Hannaford is equally looking forward to engaging Scottish talent and hints that a more permanent Scottish base for the extreme medicine gathering could be on the cards.
“It’s a perfect home for us and I wouldn’t be surprised if it became a permanent one,” he says.
“Edinburgh has a magnificent history of medical advancement behind it.”
The main wish for now though, is for the elite minds of the medical world to meet and get talking.
“One of my defining moments so far has been putting Mike from NASA and the doctor from a base camp at Everest in the same cab,” says Mark.
“When great minds meet you have no idea what that could lead to.”
Laura Piper @STVLauraPiper