“Just a Flesh Wound”

posted February 25, 2014 by Miles O'Brien

MOB Mono Mano

I wish I had a better story to tell you about why I am typing this with one hand (and some help from Dragon Dictate).

A shark attack would be interesting. An assassination attempt would be intriguing. Skydiving mishaps always make for good copy. An out-of-control quad copter that turns on its master would be entertaining (and would come complete with a grim, potentially viral, video).

No, the reason I am now one-handed is a little more prosaic than those scenarios.

I had finished my last shoot after a long reporting trip to Japan and the Philippines and was stacking the Pelican cases brimming with TV gear onto my cart. As I tried to bungee cord them into some semblance of security for movement, one of the cases toppled onto my left forearm. Ouch! It hurt, but I wasn’t all “911” about it. It was painful and swollen but I figured it would be okay without any medical intervention. Maybe a little bit of denial?

The next day, February 13, things seemed status quo. It was sore and swollen but seemingly no worse. Then, that night, things got worse. Both the pain and swelling increased.

So on the morning of February 14, I asked the hotel for a referral to a doctor and went to see him right away. While my concern was already growing, the look on his face when he saw my forearm got me a little more nervous.

The doctor told me he suspected that I might be having an Acute Compartment Syndrome. I had to Wiki it, but in essence it is an increase in pressure inside an enclosed space in the body. This can block blood flow causing a whole host of serious, life-threatening consequences.

He had me admitted to the hospital. Over the next few hours, I endured probably the longest, most painful experience I could ever imagine. My forearm developed some dusky discoloration, but more alarming was the numbness. I could not feel my forearm!

The doctor recommended an emergency fasciotomy to relieve the pressure. This is a gruesome enough procedure on its own, but the he was clear that the problem was progressing rapidly and there was a clear and present threat to my limb.

It was getting real. Of course I wasn’t awake for the action but I was told later that things tanked even further once I was on the table. And when I lost blood pressure during the surgery due to the complications of compartment syndrome, the doctor made a real-time call and amputated my arm just above the elbow. He later told me it all boiled down to a choice…between a life and a limb.

So I woke up to a new reality in the hospital. It’s been a challenging week dealing with the phantom pain, the vicissitudes of daily life with one hand and the worries about what lies ahead.

But I am alive and I’m grateful for that. Please don’t worry about me. I’m sure I can cope just fine. If I need your help, I promise I will ask.

Life is all about playing the hand that is dealt you. Actually, I would love somebody to deal me another hand right about now – in more ways than one.

Science for Sale

posted March 13, 2013 by Miles O'Brien

HINKLEY, Calif. – We all love a neat, tidy Hollywood ending to a David and Goliath story. Sadly, in the real world, they are hard to come by. More often than not, the little guy might win a battle, but Goliath prevails over the long haul — winning the war.

Before I went to Hinkley, I did, of course, watch the movie once again. As it turns out Erin Brockovich is accurate in many respects.

You might remember the woman who gets a big check at the end of the movie after the down-on-her-luck, crusading legal assistant has brought a giant utility to its knees for polluting the groundwater beneath the tiny desert town half way between L.A. and Las Vegas.

In the movie, she was known as Donna Jensen (and played by Marg Helgenberger). There is no real-life Donna Jensen — the details of her story are a composite of several real-life travails.

But Roberta Walker was the main inspiration. Naturally, it was not long after I met her that I asked her what she thought of the movie.

Read the rest of the post and see the video story here.


Sins of the Sons

posted February 20, 2013 by Miles O'Brien

I knew something was amiss when I was on a Skype call with my longtime television production partner Kate Tobin as I was thrashing through the final stages of editing of “Mind of a Rampage Killer.” She seemed rather grumpy, and so I naturally assumed I had done something to offend. But when I asked her about it, she confessed she found the subject matter “very disturbing.”

“It has worked my nerves,” said she.

It was a good reminder. In my line of work, there are times when you need to put your feelings aside in order to get enough perspective and objectivity to tell a tough story. And I have been so deeply enmeshed in this unhappy subject for so long, with no break, that I have grown some emotional calluses.


Into Pungent Water…

posted January 3, 2013 by Miles O'Brien


I have heard people say television is a glamorous business. But while I was donning a Tyvek suit, face mask, gloves and waiters cinched tight with duct tape — to be lowered into a big sewer line beneath Detroit’s Jefferson Avenue — I wondered what on earth they were talking about.

I was there to get a better understanding of the nature and scope of the challenges faced by the people who keep the taps flowing and the toilets flushing.

Most of us don’t think much, if at all, about how clean water gets delivered to our homes or what happens when it goes down the drain. I was among them, until I got this assignment.

So I had to make it my No. 1 (or maybe No. 2) priority.

More here – including the story of the amazing rescue of my glasses.


Drinking on the Job – for Research

posted December 14, 2012 by Miles O'Brien

My job takes me to all kinds of interesting places, people and situations. The inebriation test that I did for my recent piece for the PBS NewsHour on the genetics of addiction (see big box above) is one that I will remember – buzz notwithstanding. Below is an excerpt of my blog post I did for the NewsHour:

I have no doubt there are addictive traits in my DNA. There are plenty of drunks in my family tree. But while the role of genes in addiction is large — researchers now believe they are responsible for about 60 percent of the risk of addiction — there are many genes and counter-genes that come into play.

More here at the PBS NewsHour site.

“I’ll Sleep When I am Dead” and other Myths

posted November 18, 2012 by Miles O'Brien

Me at FL 370 on Virgin America flight 366 from LAX to BOS on November 14, 2012.

I really should be asleep right now. I am on a Red Eye at 37,000 feet – somewhere between LA and Boston. I only got five hours of sleep last night; obligations late last night and early this morning.

This is not an unusual sequence of events in most of our lives. We over-program our days, and when push comes to shove, we trim our sleep time in order to fit it all in. We might think we are doing the right thing by trying to max out our waking moments, after all, we will all “sleep when we are dead.”

But there is a huge stack of evidence we are hastening the arrival of our dirt nap by burning the candles at both ends. Our illusory quest to push the sleep envelope makes us fatter, sicker, sadder, stupider and, ultimately less long-lived.

But how much sleep do we need? It depends. Some folks need more than others. Eight hours may be a good number to aim for, but not for everyone. If you are routinely awakened by an iPhone Marimba or other alarming requests for consciousness, and cannot really function until you have tossed back a grande latte, you are clearly not getting enough shuteye. But we all know that.


The Shuttle Shokunin

posted September 26, 2012 by Miles O'Brien

This is adapted from a speech I delivered at the 50th anniversary dinner of the Kennedy Space Center on Saturday, September 22, 2012

KSC is The NASA Center Where Stuff Gets Real – and so do the people. Where else in the world of rocket science will you find guys with ponytails, tattoos and t-shirts who ride Harleys and drink pitchers of beer at happy hour?

I knew I loved this place when, about a dozen years ago I was with some workers in the OPF as they were putting in the main engines on Discovery. As they were turning the wrenches, one guy turns to the other and says, “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey – right?”

Now that inspires a lot of confidence in our space program doesn’t it?

Actually, “Righty-Tighty,” his compadres and his predecessors have done some pretty darned amazing things over the years.

They have changed shuttle main engines on the pad to avoid a rollback. They have cut through the aft bulkhead to repair a leak. And they have flown through many holes in the clouds seen only by the legendary launch director Bob Sieck. (more…)

Why the Curiosity over Mars…

posted August 5, 2012 by Miles O'Brien

Welcome back to the surface of the Red Planet Earthlings! This is a place like we have never seen before in any previous robotic mission. Expect to see some images that harken back to Ansel Adams shots of Yosemite. And expect some ground-breaking science which will take us closer to answering a fundamental question: are we alone?

Mars is my second favorite planet, and the folks at NASA/Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Lab in La Canada, CA have helped us feel as if we have been there. And, against all odds, they have done it again. We all owe them thanks for the outstanding vicarious ride these past 30 years or so – and the curious turn it will now take with the successful landing of the Mars Science Laboratory.

Sometimes I think we take for granted that we are now awash in amazing high revolution, panoramic, microscopic, three dimensional images shot on the surface – or in orbit.

What we have found is a place that looks an awful lot like home (if you are Walter White) and I think that is part of the appeal. Looking at the Eagle crater, a human being can imagine being there – in hiking boots.


It is truly a transformative experience, and when you consider all the proof we now have that this place was once warm and wet, you cannot help but look at those images and wonder about our place in the universe and how close we are to learning if we have some company.

How great is it to be alive at this time when we just might learn the answer to that question? We are lucky to have people like the wizards at JPL who know how to get an answer.

Of course, we have been curious about this since cavemen looked at the night sky and said ”UG”  (or when they saw the spaceship land and the little green men build Stonehenge).


Alan Alda’s “Flame Challenge”

posted July 5, 2012 by Miles O'Brien

Any parent can remember the moment when their child asks one of those seemingly simple, yet devilishly hard questions: you know, “why is the sky blue?”… “why are plants green?”…and “where do babies come from?

One of the toughest in this category is “what is a flame?” In 1947, an 11-year old Alan Alda asked his teacher that question and got a non-response: “oxidation” – thus ensuring young Alan would continue on his career path of acting instead of taking a turn toward science.

But now Alda has taken a turn at trying to bridge the gap between scientists and the rest of us.

Read the rest of this post here at the PBS NewsHour site.


“To the Moon, Liu Yang!”

posted June 29, 2012 by Miles O'Brien

If you are not impressed with the Chinese space program, you are not paying attention. The just-completed Shenzhou-9 mission to the Tiangong-1 “stationlet” appears to be a stunning success.

The three person crew (including China’s first woman taikonaut, Liu Yang) spent slightly less than two weeks in space.

They arrived at Tiangong-1 on autopilot, conducted a series of unspecified experiments and then, most importantly, successfully docked Shenzhou-9 with Tiangong-1 manually – proving they can perform this crucial task in case “George” fails someday  (as mine tends to on short final in the clouds).

My good friend Leroy Chiao and I had hoped to be there for the launch and landing of this mission. But after years of negotiating with the Chinese for some real access to their space program for a documentary, our proposal was flat-out rejected amid the controversy over that blind activist Chen Guangcheng.

Leroy logged four space missions – three on the shuttle and one on the Russian Soyuz – which took him to and from the International Space Station – where he spent about 190 days as Commander of Expedition 10.


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