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Doctor awaits stint on rescue team



Published: Thu, February 6, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



He thought of the crew during the breakup, knowing that the space suits could not protect them at that speed and altitude.

By WILLIAM K. ALCORN

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Dr. Larry Woods, chief of aerospace medicine for the Air Force Reserve's 910th Airlift Wing in Vienna, still plans to be part of a NASA Space Shuttle Rescue Team when his turn comes up.

But he doubts that the launch in which he's to be involved, scheduled for spring, will occur on time.

"The [Columbia] investigation will take some time, and it should. That's the right way to do it," he said.

'Horrified'

The Howland physician, who is director of medical intensive care and chairman of internal medicine at St. Elizabeth Health Center, said he was "horrified" as he watched the Columbia fly apart Saturday morning.

He did not personally know any of the astronauts, but was thinking about what they were going through at that point, knowing that their space suits could not protect them at that speed and altitude.

"It's a tragic loss, from the human level and for the space program. Everyone feels terrible about it. I had a physician colleague call me Monday morning. He told me he felt like crying. Every one I've talked to says we should continue the space program," Dr. Woods said.

NASA training

Dr. Woods, who is also commander of the Disaster Medical Assistance Team housed at St. Elizabeth, said you have to be a flight surgeon with critical care experience to be considered for the NASA space rescue team rotation.

He also received special NASA training, part of which dealt with recognizing the kinds of toxicity involved in fuels and hydraulic agents from the shuttle and learning how to handle patients exposed to those substances.

On Saturday morning, as he was watching the disintegration of Columbia on television, he was responding to an e-mail from NASA confirming that he would be on the medical rescue team for the spring launch.

Rescue team

He previously participated on a shuttle rescue team at the launch of the Endeavor in November 2002. During a launch or landing, physicians are paired with Air Force para-rescue jumpers aboard Blackhawk helicopters outfitted to transport the critically ill, he said. The teams are then stationed in designated areas to quickly respond if something happens.

Hundreds of people are involved in the rescue operations, including crash and fire people and hospitals standing by, he said.

"You're always prepared for the worst, but you hope it doesn't happen. Most shuttle missions go off without a hitch. But they warn you to be ready, because anything could happen at any time," he said.

"It's a tribute to our technology that we haven't had more disasters than we've seen so far. I think that's the explanation for why many people believe the space program should continue."

"How many people even knew there was to be a landing? It's become so commonplace. Americans are so used to super-technology that no one appreciates that these guys are walking on the edge. Until something bad happens, it doesn't hit home."

"It's a tribute to their genius and a tragedy at the same time," Dr. Woods said.




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