Meniere’s Disease: My Odd Connection with Alan Shepard

Alan Shepard

Today is the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s triumphant, risk-filled Freedom 7 flight, becoming the first US Astronaut in space.  One little known aspect of Shepard’s astronaut career is that he was grounded for a period of time because he suffered from Meniere’s disease.  His official astronaut bio isn’t clear about when he was diagnosed but it does mention the following:

“He was restored to full flight status in May 1969, following corrective surgery for an inner ear disorder.”

Based on other sources, it seems Shepard was probably diagnosed with the condition around the time he was named the head of the Astronaut Office in 1963 and was finally cleared to return to flight in ’69.  Meniere’s disease is the name given to a condition manifested through four symptoms:

  1. Variable hearing loss
  2. Tinnitus (Ringing in the ears)
  3. Fullness/Pressure in the ears
  4. Dizzy Spells/Vertigo

I was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease in 2002 after suffering through a debilitating bout of dizzy spells that saw me get wheeled out of work on a stretcher and then a few weeks later getting wheeled out of my apartment under the same circumstances.

By far, the worst part of the condition is the dizzy spells.  They occur without rhyme or reason, striking at any moment with no warning.  I remember coming down with them walking home from classes in college, in the middle of helping my parents pack up their house and move, in the middle of a meeting at work, and just sitting at home watching TV.  The spells can last minutes or hours.

The dizzy spells are also very debilitating.  The worst I ever suffered was early on in my marriage.  I was home alone after work, watching TV.  Without warning, the room started violently spinning.  I immediately felt nauseous and it took every ounce of effort to make it to the toilet.  I stumbled me way there, threw up on the toilet, then crawled back to the couch.  I struggled to read the numbers on my cell phone, called my wife, and about a half hour later, the paramedics arrived and I was carted off to the hospital.

With this information, it’s easy to see why NASA flight doctors would not allow Shepard to fly a spacecraft. Being in the middle of complex ascent or entry operations is no place to suffer a debilitating attack of vertigo.

While the condition is still not well understood, there are plenty of options to treat it.  Diuretics are used to help manage the dizzy spells through keeping fluid levels low in parts of the ear.  Surgery is also an option, which Shepard apparently chose to do.  That wasn’t an option for me, as I displayed symptoms in both ears and Doctor’s weren’t willing to risk the possible side effects without being confident they would address the condition.

The best news is that the condition passes over time.  As it was explained to me, after about 6 years, the balance organ in my ears essentially burnt out, and I no longer suffer the dizzy spells.  I do still have the other symptoms, but those are mere annoyances compared to the dizzy spells.

Even with today’s medicine and medical practices, it took several doctors and a dozen tests to pinpoint the condition.  It was extremely frustrating to go from test to test without making progress on finding out what was wrong with me or how to fix it.   I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for one of the leaders of the fledgling US space program.

For me, having the condition pass allowed me to pass a flight controller physical and become a CAPCOM for the International Space Station.  For Alan Shepard, he was cleared to return to flight and was the commander for Apollo 14.  I remember the day I learned he had the same condition and that he had overcome it.  It gave me plenty of reason to stay positive and continue to work towards my goals.