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To call his career trajectory "varied" does not quite capture the diverse experiences of fourth-year BWH Emergency Medicine resident Erik Antonsen, MD, PhD.
Antonsen's background has included working as a civilian rocket engineer for the U.S. Air Force, pursuing the specialized field of spacecraft electric propulsion in a doctoral program at the University of Illinois, and conducting HIV research in Africa as a Fogarty International Clinical Research Fellow.
His most recent adventure was providing medical support for the Red Bull Stratos Jump, the record-breaking 24-mile freefall made by skydiver Felix Baumgartner last month. As viewers around the world tuned in online, Baumgartner ascended 128,000 feet to the edge of space in a capsule attached to a stratospheric balloon, and dove back toward the earth, eventually parachuting to the ground. The jump broke the prior record for the highest freefall, and Baumgartner became the first person to break the sound barrier outside of a vehicle. Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Joseph Kittinger previously held the highest freefall record at 102,800 feet in 1960.
"It was a fascinating jump and a fun opportunity to do some interesting work," said Antonsen of the mission, which was based in Roswell, N.M. He will be presenting the EMS recovery plans at the Aerospace Medical Association's conference in Chicago next year.
Though he was working a shift in the BWH ED during last month's jump, Antonsen was stationed in a recovery truck on-site in New Mexico the week prior, when the jump was originally scheduled to occur. He worked on EMS readiness and recovery procedures.
"During Felix's jump, there were six phases of flight, with different issues or problems that could occur in each of those phases, from unconsciousness to decompression sickness," he said. Antonsen and the rest of the Stratos medical team designed Baumgartner's recovery plan and made sure they were ready to respond to any number of issues that could have occurred during the fall.
Antonsen says these missions and spaceflight in general provide invaluable medical research. "The physiological changes that the body undergoes in space become a model for diseases here on Earth. NASA has done a lot of research on this."
After completing his residency this spring, Antonsen hopes to continue combining his passions of emergency medicine and engineering research. He also hopes to be part of NASA's Space Program someday.
"My dream of being an astronaut has informed the selection of my fields of study," he said. "I came to BWH because I loved the people I met, and they were willing to support someone doing something a bit different from the usual Emergency Medicine route. The opportunities have been amazing."