Astronaut David Saint-Jacques trades spacesuit for scrubs to help in fight against COVID-19

Quebec astronaut David Saint-Jacques is returning to his roots, donning scrubs to help with the COVID-19 pandemic at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC).

The Canadian Space Agency said on Friday that Saint-Jacques, who is also a medical doctor, is currently in training at the MUHC.

This week, he began a training stint in the hospital’s COVID units, facilitated by the Quebec College of Physicians and the hospital.

“You can’t go cowboy” in these situations, he said in an interview. “A lot has changed in 10 years.”

Saint-Jacques earned his medical degree from Laval University in 2005 and completed his residency at McGill University, where he specialized in primary medicine in remote areas.

His first tour aboard the International Space Station was from December 2018 to June 2019.

Saint-Jacques waves goodbye at the end of his last press conference in orbit aboard the International Space Station before returning to Earth in June 2019. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Saint-Jacques isn’t the first high-profile Quebecer to lend a hand on the health-care front.

At the height of the pandemic’s first wave in the spring, NFL player Laurent Duvernay-Tardif — who got his medical degree at McGill in 2018 — answered Quebec Premier François Legault’s call for people to help in the province’s long-term care residences.

So far, Saint-Jacques said, the training is going well. “I was a little anxious about it,” he said. “The learning curve is steep, but it’s a really great team.”

He said he was struck by the incredible variety of people working to fight COVID-19.

“There is sadness, and we all can’t wait for this to end, but we have to lead the fight,” he said. “We see the waiting lists, which are getting longer. There are so many other things that you don’t do while you are focused on it.”

Saint-Jacques said it’s important to remember that COVID-19 doesn’t just affect the elderly or patients with serious pre-existing conditions.

“That struck me the first time I admitted someone into my care, a man my age, who was not particularly sick before,” he said. “For him, COVID was a disaster. 

“In the space between the people who have no symptoms and the people who die from them, there are people who will get through it, but who get very sick, who really go through hell, on oxygen, pumped full of drugs, in the hospital, with an impact on their families.”

Saint-Jacques said those situations are what imperil the health-care system.

“Now is not the time to let our guard down, even though we’ve all had enough,” he said.

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