In a good space

Former NASA doctor shuttles into Durango

It’s a privilege to serve non-military patients, says Durango urologist Dr. Jeffrey Jones, who spent 12 years with NASA and served in Iraq. Enlarge photo

LINDSAY EPPICH/Durango Herald

It’s a privilege to serve non-military patients, says Durango urologist Dr. Jeffrey Jones, who spent 12 years with NASA and served in Iraq.

Astronauts, who may be the fittest of fliers, still require medical monitoring, says a Durango physician who was a flight surgeon at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for 12 years.

Dr. Jeffrey Jones, a urologic surgeon, recently joined Mercy Regional Medical Center.

At NASA, where he worked from 1998 to earlier this year, he watched out for the health of about 100 astronauts who flew in space shuttles or worked on the International Space Station, which circles the Earth at mean altitudes ranging from 173 to 286 miles.

“Astronauts are subject to a lot of stresses,” 51-year-old Jones said during a recent interview.

Among potential problems:

b Kidney stones because of loss of calcium from exposure to micro-gravity (near-zero).

b Loss of muscle mass – despite a couple of hours of daily exercise – from lack of bone-loading activity in one gravity such as done on Earth.

b Decompression sickness when moving from the shuttle or the International Space Station to a spacesuit or vice versa.

In the space station, the atmospheric pressure is 14.7 pounds per square inch, in a spacesuit, 4.3 psi. To counter the change in pressure, astronauts “pre-breathe” 100 percent oxygen to wash out nitrogen in their system or they “camp out” in an airlock before donning the spacesuit. The latter involves less pre-breathing.

b Exposure to trapped particles or galactic cosmic radiation. Short-term effects can be nausea and vomiting, while prolonged exposure such as during trips to the moon can damage DNA and can result in mutant cells.

As a crew surgeon, Jones would communicate with the seven members of a space shuttle every day. He talked with three to six astronauts in the space station once a week.

“We had private medical conferences with each astronaut,” Jones said. “Conversations were encrypted to protect privacy.”

As part of his duties, Jones coordinated the medical care of astronauts with physicians from partner countries – Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency.

The last nine months of his 12 years at NASA were spent in Iraq with his activated Marine reserve unit.

While his responsibilities as a flight surgeon to an F-18 squadron in Iraq were similar to those at NASA, they involved other concerns.

In maneuvering, F-18 pilots are exposed to pressure that can equal seven to eight times the force of gravity, Jones said. As a worst-case scenario, pilots can pass out or suffer damage to the cervical or lumbar spine.

“I had collateral duty as an electronics countermeasures officer,” Jones said. “In an EA-6B Prowler, we would jam and knock out the ability of the enemy to communicate or detonate improvised explosive devices.”

For those duties, Jones received a Combat Air Medal.

When his tour of duty in Iraq ended, Jones returned to the United States to find that the Constellation project – NASA’s planned renewed exploration of the moon and then Mars – had been canceled.

“I’d been involved in the development of new vehicles for those projects,” Jones said. “So instead of returning to the Johnson Space Center to work on the International Space Station or commercial space programs, I decided to do something different.”

After interviewing for urology positions from the Carolinas to California, Jones chose Durango and Mercy Urology Services, a clinic owned by the hospital.

Jones, who has fellowship training in urologic oncology, specializes in medical and surgical treatment of reproductive and urinary disorders. He also does urologic cancer, kidney stone and prostate research.

Jones received a medical degree from Baylor University’s College of Medicine and a Master of Science from the University of Texas. He remains a professor at Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas Medical Branch.

“I go there one week a month to be the attending surgeon at teaching hospitals in Texas Medical Center,” Jones said.

The transition to civilian life was no chore, Jones said.

“I’m still a reservist supporting Marine Corps aviation, so I get to fly in military aircraft,” Jones said. “Also, I teach at Baylor, I’m doing clinical research and I’m on the staff at the Center for Space Medicine with several projects on the International Space Station.

It’s a privilege to serve non-military patients, Jones said.

“I like Mercy’s mission – helping those in need regardless of socioeconomic status.” Jones said. “Plus, Durango has nice people, a nice climate and beautiful mountains. I wanted to get back to nature and commune with some of God’s wonders.”

daler@durango herald.com

Dr. Jeffrey Jones, now a Durango-based urologist, spent 12 years with NASA. Here he prepares for extravehicular mobility unit testing operations, used in spacewalks. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Jeffrey Jones

Dr. Jeffrey Jones, now a Durango-based urologist, spent 12 years with NASA. Here he prepares for extravehicular mobility unit testing operations, used in spacewalks.

Jones is ready to go fly in a U.S. Marine Corps EA-6 Prowler. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Jeffrey Jones

Jones is ready to go fly in a U.S. Marine Corps EA-6 Prowler.

LINDSAY EPPICH/Durango Herald
Dr. Jeff Jones, a urologist at Mercy Regional Medical Center, shows the information he can obtain with equipment to help better treat his patients. Enlarge photo

LINDSAY EPPICH/Durango Herald Dr. Jeff Jones, a urologist at Mercy Regional Medical Center, shows the information he can obtain with equipment to help better treat his patients.

LINDSAY EPPICH/Durango Herald
Dr. Jeff Jones adjusts his equipment at Mercy Regional Medical Center. Enlarge photo

LINDSAY EPPICH/Durango Herald Dr. Jeff Jones adjusts his equipment at Mercy Regional Medical Center.