Wednesday 4 July 2012

Preparations for ALMA

As I'm due to visit ALMA tomorrow, I thought I'd write a post about the medical I had to go through before leaving the UK.

This was a high altitude medical, which all astronomers and engineers have to do before heading off to work at any of the high telescopes (e.g. James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii, ALMA in Chile). The purpose of the medical is to check you have no underlying health problems which could be an issue at altitude - mainly heart issues.

I found the medical totally fascinating!

I had to go to the HeartSound Centre in Swindon for the medical, and, after a brief family medical history interview, I went into another room where I was to have some ultrasound done on various parts of my body.

First were my carotid arteries. Of course, since this was an ultrasound, I was able to watch everything and ask the doctor to explain everything. He explained that he was checking the lining of the arteries, for any damage or thickening. He looked at the arteries in cross section and length ways (don't know the proper terms for that!) and in particular wanted to check where the artery splits in 2. Thankfully, my carotid arteries got the all clear.

Then he checked my femoral arteries and explained that in actual fact, it is damage in these which most highly correlates with heart problems. He did the same checks and gave them the all clear too.

After this, he checked my pancreas and my kidneys. He measured these and checked their size against the norm for my age, and thankfully I have healthily sized kidneys and pancreas! There is also a big vein (I think it was a vein of some sort) which was in front of the pancreas which he measured the size of too.

After this, came the coolest bit of the whole medical - an ultrasound of my heart! It was amazing! He did this from the top looking down and side-on. The side-on view was the best as you could really see the valve opening and closing. He added some colour to show the movement of the blood in the heart, to check for leaks and that everything was working as it should be (i.e. blood travelling in the right direction!). It was unbelievable to be able to watch my own heart beating away in front of me!

After the ultrasound was finished, I then went into another room to check my lung function and get an ECG done whilst exercising and pushing my heart to 95% of its maximum rate. This part was done because whilst at altitude your body is under extreme strain, similar to that experienced when exercising. Your body compensates for the lower oxygen levels by increasing your breathing rate (definitely felt that today and yesterday) and your heart beats faster.

This part of the test also went well, and I got the all clear to be able to go to visit ALMA should the opportunity arise. And of course, the opportunity has arisen and I'll be at 5000m at the ALMA Observing Site on Friday. Naturally, the medical doesn't give any indication of whether I'll suffer altitude sickness. In fact, there is no real way of knowing if you will. Some people who have been fine at altitude in the past can still suffer from sickness at a later date. So although I've been fine today and yesterday at 4200m, I'm not counting my chickens just yet, but I'm hopeful.

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