WHAT DO CHRIS HATFIELD, GRAVITY and PARALYSIS – ALL HAVE IN COMMON?
A while ago, when Chris Hadfield was scheduled to land back on this planet I made sure I had the opportunity, like many, to watch and witness his reentry. As news cameras filmed the nurse’s and doctor’s intently attending to Col Hadfield, I was struck with a deep sense of commonality as well as intrigue of his experience, there was something going on there that seemed familiar in an odd and curious way. All three astronauts experienced aggravating pain and readjustment challenges as their bodies struggled to adapt to their new environment on earth, and specifically – gravity and the physical elements of being an earthling.
My intrigue accelerated as I observed the physical implications of gravity on these astronauts’ bodies. First of all, they were unable to stand – as their bones and muscles were weak and unable to manage the physical strength required to hold their bodies up, and there was the extreme burning sensation with their feet on the earth, and dangerously low blood pressure. My immediate thoughts were, “wow that seems uncannily similar to the situation of paralysis.”
I was quite amazed actually at how similar Chris’s reentry challenges were to my re-entry into my body from being completely paralyzed to slowly gaining more and more physical functions. What is called normal capacities, such as blood pressure, sensation, proprioception and temperature control we take for granted, as well as the fact that we go from an immobile fully dependent baby to learning to be a fully functioning independent, physical being.
For Chris Hadfield just putting his feet on the ground was excruciatingly painful and he remarked in the first interview that the burning sensation was almost unbearable. Similarly in a paralyzed body there is a burning sensation with any neural activity or any new place of feeling. You can imagine in paralysis the surprise, where the assumption is that there isn’t feeling, such as in my case of a complete severance of the spinal cord, to the harsh reality that I do have feelings but they are altered and first are registered as pain or a burning sensation and then subsequently as tingling and buzzing or other altered modalities. There certainly is feeling however, and as Chris discovered – it isn’t necessarily comfortable.
Well with all of the above in mind, what do Chris Hadfield, paralysis and gravity all have in common then? They are all or have a similar experience of an ‘altered state’. Let me explain. One of the things that I have found to be extremely challenging as well as immensely rewarding is the complexity of living in a totally paralyzed body with an altered awareness of my physicality while at the same time grappling with the extreme challenges of gravity. Ironically when I was first injured although paralyzed, I did not feel limited in my body or even physical for that matter. I was aware, as Chris Hatfield would’ve felt miles away from Earth’s gravity, a floating sensation where I could actually non-physically move around the room, literally.
In addition to that, this body is not static. In other words, paralysis isn’t like pulling the plug out completely from the outlet, it’s like pulling it partially out in degrees, where there is still information going into the system, it is just not the regular connection or pathways. So for many with paralysis there is a consistent electrical current and pulsation of new pathways being formed and explored due to the healing nature the body.
Hence, even though I had a complete severance of the spinal cord my body is ‘re-constituting’ itself into gravity all the time. As mentioned above, when I was first injured I did not feel physical, I felt boundary-less in my physicality in my physical form, and as I have become more physical, so to speak, there has been an excruciatingly painful process of me ‘gravitizing’ or becoming more earthly physical in my body.
Ironically as I began to heal and put more intention into feeling and moving my paralyzed body I began to experience the excruciating pain and contortion of consciousness moving into physical form. We see this in babies in their spastic legs kicking out jerky moves. We saw this with Chris Hatfield and his legs vibrating and burning as they touched the ground, and not able to take his weight. And I too experience the same when my legs take weight – erratic uncontrollable movement, burning pain and a lot of tingling and vibration. This force of gravity and experience of physicality is indeed a very fascinating and complex equation.
That is why it took Chris Hadfield so long to re-enter and adjust to life on earth after being up in space for over five months. His initial reentry was based on stabilizing his vital signs as well as then beginning to help him to remember how to be in gravity. This required about six months rehab in a specialized training facility over in Russia. Yes that sounds familiar too.
Due to all this great crossover I hope that someday we can use the complexities of paralysis to enhance the learning experience of future space missions, and subsequently and potentially use the experience of astronauts in antigravity weightless space to contribute to the understanding and possible rehab or cure for the mysterious medical condition of paralysis. If nothing else it would sure be fun to go up into space and be able to float for a while in a body that isn’t able to move normally on earth, where there’s no gravity to contend with!