Cowboy Turned Space Surgeon
In 1981, a 16 year old boy with a private pilot's license joined the rodeo circuit as a calf roper in West Texas. This cowboy was Sean Roden, a fourth generation Texan, who went on to receive his MD at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), and whose work took him around the world. Dr. Roden, the son of an oil baron, grew up on a 10,000 acre ranch in rural West Texas which was fixed with a runway. Dr. Roden’s childhood home essentially served as a mini private airport and exposed him to aviation as a child. Despite receiving his private pilot's license as a teen, Dr. Roden had no intention of flying professionally – he had his sights set on becoming a rancher. After a short stint on the rodeo circuit, Dr. Roden suffered a bull horn to the chest resulting in four broken ribs. After the accident, Dr. Roden's father suggested he go apply to the University of Texas at Austin.
Dr. Sean Roden
Going to college changed Dr. Roden’s life. “I had never really been that interested in education, but for the first time in my life, I was.” Dr. Roden dove into his school work with no sense of direction at first, “I just started taking classes, I took french, oceanography, and aviation classes. I became a bartender, cut tobacco in Kentucky for a summer, even worked for a vet.” Dr. Roden’s love for learning flourished throughout his early years in college, but it was not till a family reunion that he decided to explore the world of medicine. A cousin working as a trauma surgeon in Dallas suggested that Dr. Roden take an EMT course. Dr. Roden said “Why not?” and ultimately fell in love with it. He then pursued nursing school and moved to Galveston to work as a flight medic. After living in a dorm with medical students in Galveston, Dr. Roden figured if they could be doctors then he could too. Dr. Roden continued his education and got a master’s degree in genetic engineering and was then accepted to medical school.
Inspired by his childhood love for aviation, Dr. Roden interned for the Rural Healthcare District of Australia and the Royal Flying Doctors Service. Dr. Roden’s spent six months working in Australia as a flight surgeon, which was a life changing experience that inspired him to found Texas Flying Doctors, “a website and media platform for connecting individuals in the aviation community.” After returning to Texas, he finished a residency in emergency medicine and became an FAA aviation medical examiner. Dr. Roden then went on to marry a fellow texan, Sonya, and moved to Galveston, Texas.
In order to maintain the status of a physician, doctors must continuously further their medical education. While furthering his education in Galveston, Dr. Roden attended a class called “Pushing the Envelope.” Little did Dr. Roden know that this course would connect him with NASA. While attending this medical course, Dr. Roden encountered a NASA representative promoting a civilian training program where civilian physicians are trained to take care of astronauts. The highly selective program had over 70 applicants for only 2 spots, and Dr. Roden received one of these 2 spots. Dr. Roden went from private practice to a two-year fellowship in aerospace medicine where he was then recruited by NASA to support astronauts in Star City Russia. While working in Russia, Dr. Roden supported astronaut Scott Kelly as Kelly served as director of operations in Star City. Throughout his time working with NASA, Dr. Roden worked on five separate expeditions during which he was responsible for the health of an astronaut 254 miles away in orbit.
While monitoring their astronauts, in mission control, Dr. Roden and his fellow space surgeons sit 8 hour shifts, monitoring their astronauts’s environmental situation, ensuring they are not overworked, and helping with their data collection and analysis from experiments performed onboard. Astronauts participate in one hour of resistance training and one hour of cardio daily to ensure they maintain muscle mass while in zero gravity.
When asked about some of the challenges he faced while working for NASA, Dr. Roden responded that the job does not only entail monitoring astronaut’s physical health from a far, but also each doctor develops a personal relationship with the astronaut. Thus, they must keep their patient connected with events on Earth and provide them with emotional support. Dr. Roden was once in the unfortunate position of delivering the news of a family member’s death to an astronaut in the International Space Station (ISS). “It’s complicated, they can’t come home, can’t go to the funeral,” says Dr. Roden. The role of a flight surgeon is multifaceted, involving everything from the more practical data analysis and vital sign monitoring to nurturing personal relationships and providing emotional support for astronauts in the ISS.
Dr. Roden claims that “it truly is a NASA family.” Not only are close relationships formed amongst crew members, but also with former astronauts through programs that monitor their health after leaving the space program. This to see if they develop diseases differently from ordinary citizens. One of the astronauts Dr. Roden connected with through this program was named Alan Beam, an astronaut who later became as artist, and according to Dr. Roden, meeting these kinds of people is the best part of the job.
It seems as if Dr. Roden has lived many life paths, and one such life path led him all the way down to the South Pole. While Dr. Roden was living in Oregon, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston recruited him to work as the medical director for polar medical operations. Dr. Roden took the opportunity and departed on the 4.5 month long expedition to work as a surgeon at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Dr. Roden claims the experience working at the South Pole was “life changing.” Although he could only speak to his wife 7 minutes a day, perpetual daylight in an icy desert is like being on another planet. There is no color and no smell, and Dr. Roden says that “words just don’t describe it.”
While Dr. Roden’s work has taken him all around the world, he now resides in Houston, Texas with his wife Sonya and their greyhounds. Dr. Roden's close proximity to NASA in Houston allows him to work out of mission control, and he is currently responsible for astronaut Christina Koch, NASA’s longest first time flying female, on expedition 60. A cowboy turned space surgeon, Dr. Roden’s story demonstrates how one’s willingness to adapt to change and go with the flow can quite literally, take them to the ends of the earth.
Written by Grace Kelman, Edited by Willie Turchetta & Alexander Fleiss