Canada’s quirky federal jobs: Meet the doctor who takes care of Canadian astronauts


‘If there’s a medical emergency, if they need anything, the internet connection on the space station now is fairly good so they can call us at any time on our cell phone or organize a Teams (call) to discuss the medical issue’

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On the other end of a space-to-Earth telehealth video chat, you can find Raffi Kuyumjian, the chief medical officer of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and one of only two flight surgeons on staff.

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Flight surgeons are doctors responsible for medically certifying, evaluating and supporting astronauts before, during and after their missions.

Kuyumjian leads the operational space medicine group.

“We’re involved in the medical certification of the astronauts,” he said, noting that astronauts need to complete detailed medical exams to ensure they’re healthy enough to take part in space missions. “We’re decreasing the risk of them getting sick during the mission because our medical infrastructure is very limited.”

Though flight surgeons stay grounded on Earth, they do many of the pre-flight training activities the astronauts do, like water and winter survival training. They go into quarantine two weeks before launch with the astronauts to help finish up their training and do final medical checks.

During the mission, Kuyumjian said he is responsible for providing astronauts’ exercise plans and coordinating their medical testing, such as physical fitness testing, vision testing and nutrition assessments, also taking part in weekly private medical conferences. The team coordinates weekly video conferences for members to speak with their family and friends and bi-weekly psychological conferences.

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“If there’s a medical emergency, if they need anything, the internet connection on the space station now is fairly good so they can call us at any time on our cell phone or organize a Teams (call) to discuss the medical issue that they have or to help out with the treatment of a fellow crew member,” Kuyumjian said.

Medical evacuation back to Earth would be a possibility during worst-case scenarios, though he said that has not happened in the 20 years of the ISS. “We are very well aware of what the medical infrastructure on the space station is, what medications we have, what medical tools we have, so we can guide them via telemedicine if you will in real-time on what to do.”

Kuyumjian is also responsible for preparing for landing, also involved in astronauts’ medical testing and rehab sessions to ensure they’re recovering and getting their balance, strength and coordination back to pre-flight levels.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: David Saint-Jacques faces long recovery after return to Earth, doctor Raffi Kuyumjian says

How does one become a CSA flight surgeon?

After getting a bachelor’s in civil engineering, Kuyumjian said he discovered space medicine while doing his doctorate in medicine, and getting the opportunity to intern with NASA.

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After graduation, there were no jobs in the niche space medicine field, so he trained in family medicine and started working as a family practitioner in a remote area of northeastern Quebec. During that time, he was able to do courses on topics like space law, orbital science and rocketry with the International Space University, eventually being offered a flight surgeon position based out of Germany at the European Space Agency.

“I was able to get the training that wasn’t really offered anywhere in Canada and continue to practice medicine until an opportunity came up,” he said.

After about five and a half years, Kuyumjian said he came back to Canada and was hired by CSA to work on Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s mission, later working on David Saint-Jacques’ mission. He’s now working on the Artemis 2 mission with Jeremy Hansen.

Flight surgeon salaries vary depending on several factors, including experience and seniority, according to Maxime Vézina Laprise, a spokesperson with CSA. The Government of Canada website states that maximum rates reach $234,146.

Kuyumjian also works with international partner colleagues and represents the CSA on various international medical boards and working groups for the International Space Station (ISS) and Artemis programs.

“It was just a lot of fun to combine my technical background and education in engineering and the medical aspects of what I was studying. I was kind of hoping that one day I would be able to work in the field,” Kuyumjian said.

“It is very unique.”

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