Yakima native wins aerospace medicine's highest award – Yakima Herald-Republic

Yakima native James Webb remembers the first time his method for relieving altitude decompression sickness was tested in the field.

He was working at the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine in 1984, researching the causes of decompression sickness, when he got a call from NASA. Agency officials heard he was developing a method to stop decompression sickness and were interested.

Altitude decompression sickness was a problem for pilots. It occurs when nitrogen in the blood begins to create bubbles due to low atmospheric pressure. When this happened, pilots could suffer from joint pain in the shoulders, elbows, knees and ankles. In about 10 percent of cases, headaches and visual disturbances also occurred. That’s a problem when you’re trying to fly a plane at a couple hundred miles per hour.

Webb found that by breathing pure oxygen during a strenuous exercise routine, he could remove the nitrogen from the body and relieve decompression sickness as a result.

Soon after getting the call, Webb found himself teaching a NASA doctor his method.

NASA decided to test the method on a pilot who suffered from chronic decompression sickness. The pilot did the workout, hopped in the plane and took off.

“My hands were sweaty as he started going up in the air. This was my career on the line. If it didn’t work I’d be in a lot of trouble,” Webb said.

But it did work — so well NASA used his method in U2 spy plane program and with crews aboard the International Space Station. Later on, organizations and militaries across the world started using his technique and his research set the standard for the industry.

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