Breaking the Sound Barrier With our Patients: Jumping out of Planes and Other Such Stunts

This weekend, millions of people around the world witnessed a remarkable feat. Daredevil Felix Baumgartner rose to remarkable heights in a capsule tethered to a helium filled balloon. At approximately 128,100 ft (24 miles) and a speed in excess of mach one (faster than sound), he leapt from his capsule and endured a free fall of 119,846 feet. At one point in the dive, he began to spin dangerously out of control due to the very thin atmosphere and lack of wind resistance. However, he was able to regain control of his descent before any significant medical complications could arise. Certainly, Mr Baumgartner had many motivations for taking the extreme risks associated with the stunt; I expect fame and notoriety along with financial reward played a significant role. However, he also provided a great deal of research data and tested a new spacesuit that will likely be used by NASA astronauts in the future. This highly engineered suit may allow astronauts to escape high altitude disasters one day. Moreover, we now have important information about how the human body responds when breaking the sound barrier in freefall.

In medicine today, many physicians and patients “jump out of planes” in order to battle disease. Many patients with chronic or terminal illness work very hard everyday to comply with difficult medical regimens, attend necessary doctor’s appointments and accept sometimes painful and toxic therapies. For these patients, the hope for a better life without disease and more quality time with friends and family are the motivating factors. For physicians and caregivers, the gratification comes with successfully partnering with a patient and family and guiding them through difficult times. Certainly, just as with Mr Baumgartner, fame, notoriety and financial reward also plays a role for many physicians. However, medical researchers, hardworking clinicians and staff often push their physical and emotional limits to provide the very best care. For the patients who are involved the stakes are much higher.

As with Mr Baumgartner, the heroics are not of just one person–it involves a team of support staff as well as an engaged and empowered patient. A great example of these shared heroics can be found in clinical oncology. I am not an oncologist but I greatly admire what these dedicated physicians are able to do for their patients at the emotional and interpersonal level. Recently, medical oncologist Dr Mikkel Sekeres shared the way he uses humor to help his terminally ill patients cope. Becoming emotionally involved with patients and families is an important step in partnering in care and critical part of healing. Similar to jumping out of planes, many patients and oncologists participate in clinical trials of unproven therapies in order to advance medical science in hopes for a cure. The heroic patients who participate in these trials risk everything. Although many of these trials do not result in positive outcomes for the terminally ill patients who participate, much progress toward the development of better therapies for others is made. Through the heroism of these patients we have been able to develop new therapies to treat a myriad of diseases.

Leaps of faith are common in medicine. As physicians we have been given the ability to impact thousands of lives throughout our careers. We must be willing to stand up on the ledge, high above the earth and jump in order to advocate for our patients and improve care. Mr Baumgartner has shown us all that human beings have great potential. All of us should be inspired to push our own limits just as Fearless Felix did on Sunday. Although jumping from 24 miles up and reaching the speed of sound is quite an impressive feat, we must remember our patients who rise to great heights every single day in their battle with disease. Just as mission control supported the daredevil, as physicians, we must push harder to provide the support these patients need.


Images are YouTube frame grabs

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