Six Things Pilots Would Not Guess About Medical Science

Six things pilots would not guess about medical science: politics, rock musicians, human decency, regulations and Dickens caul.

If you are not familiar with comedian Jim Gaffigan, I urge you to listen to him. His piece on bacon cracks me up every time I hear it and his habit of critiquing his own performance in a stage whisper is so very clever. And right now I am channeling Gaffigan “what is Sackier talking about? This title? Really? Has he lost his mind entirely?” Hopefully not. 

As I like to tell people when I give public talks in these United States, I am an American, but unlike most of my audience, I chose to become a citizen and did so because of what I hold dear about this country. But there are some things that make my teeth itch and I have to get them off my chest. As a pilot who saw over-burdensome regulations fracture British aviation, I rail against it happening here. As a surgeon with a passion for research, I saw how overt bureaucracy could impede scientific progress. And given that we are all going to be patients sooner or later, just as it behooves us to push back against user fees or other constraints on our freedom to fly, taking action against impediments to furthering medical science in the USA should be in our mission portfolio. 

Several months back I attended a superb conference organized by Dr. Robin Smith at The Vatican on stem cells. Yes, you heard me correctly; the home of the catholic faith hosted a symposium to discuss one of the most contentious issues in science. Kudos to Dr. Smith for one of the best organized meetings I have ever attended. Kudos to the erudite and charming Cardinals and to His Holiness the Pope; for a nice Jewish boy from North London, I was mesmerized by the profound paradox in operation here and the commitment to improving human health.   

At the conference we heard from a truly renaissance group of people and here are some of the highlights; 


  • Robin Roberts, anchor of Good Morning America was in remission from breast cancer, a diagnosis she shared with her adoring public. She then developed life-threatening bone marrow failure and her sister, fellow TV anchor, Sally-Ann Roberts, donated her bone marrow. Admittedly family members, but what a glorious and loving act. Sean Parker, entrepreneur and paradigm-shifting businessman told us of his massive gift to support medical research and desire to dedicate his life and resources to these endeavors. 

  • Dr. Ron DePinho, President of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Dr. Fred Sanfillipo, Medical Director and Trustee of the Marcus Foundation talked about how we need to share best practices from centers of excellence like the world-renowned center he leads, to every medical facility. Maybe medicine can learn from aviation – we try to share best practices on flight safety and how changing course can save your life. And maybe pilots can learn from doctors; there are things you can do to save your life by changing course. 

  • Senator Bill Frist suggested we needed to modernize our regulatory mechanisms in the USA (Food and Drug Administration) to take note of changing practices. The Japanese and Europeans are way ahead of America in offering game-changing stem cell therapies. As Americans we want to be the best, but to do so demands taking leadership positions and not being inertia-bound. Inertia keeps aircraft bound to terra firma and ideas bound to go nowhere. In David Copperfield, Charles Dickens’ much-loved story we learn that the child was born with a caul, a cap of part of the placental membrane (the amniotic epithelium) initially stuck to a baby’s head. This was deemed to be a sign of great good fortune. How prophetic, the amnion is rich in stem cells, tissue that we believe might change the course of human disease. So just as we implore FAA to be our advocates as pilots, lets implore FDA to be our advocates as people. 

  • Dr. William Li, President & Medical Director of the Angiogenesis Foundation, which has done so much to help bring therapies first proposed by Dr. Judah Folkman to market, waxed eloquent about how our diets can kill or cure us. The data are there; solid, reproducible and reliable. We know what causes us harm or makes us hearty, yet the information seems to be grudgingly discussed. Can you imagine treating our knowledge of how not to enter a spin when low and slow being treated with the same disdain? 

  • In this post-election season, I reflected again on Vice President Biden’s very emotive speech to us. My political views are irrelevant and whatever one may think of the current administration the point I want to reference is that Mr. Biden was just a father at that point, a father who buried a son who had succumbed to a brain malignancy. And with very real emotion he beseeched all of us to support a bipartisan effort to attack cancer. 

  • And the rock star? At each session of this three day conference, quietly seated in the front row was guitarist The Edge of worldwide phenoms, U2. Unassuming, humble and intensely focused, he entertained us with a short acoustic performance joined by a childrens’ choir. And he noted that the “…sea change happening within health care will affect billions of people alive today resulting from a better understanding of genomics, cellular science and data. It could alleviate so much human and animal suffering; so lets keep up the pace and bring it on.”  



So what does all this have to do with you? A rock star is involved. So should you be. You are pilots, that highest form of life. You are a go-getter, you make things happen. You live life out loud. So, it is simple really; lots of incredible people from diverse backgrounds came together at this event and do so regularly at conferences large and small to discuss how to improve the life of one person or one billion people. The least you can do is your bit; change your eating habits, exercise, if within your means, support medical research financially, and most of all, learn what is out there and how it might affect you and those you love. That The Vatican hosted such an event calls to mind the quote from The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin: “But it doesn’t take a thousand men to open a door, my Lord.” And the response: “It might to keep it open. Be one of the thousand. 

Jonathan Sackier
Dr. Jonathan Sackier is an expert in aviation medical concerns and helps members with their needs through AOPA Pilot Protection Services.

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