The view from above — way, way above — inspires DeWitt, Iowa, native Dr. David Hilmers to share his caring ways around the world.
The former NASA astronaut, now a physician in Texas, has special interest in international medicine, flight medicine and disaster relief. He visits Davenport this week to speak to 5,100 Genesis Health System employees and to help dedicate an exercise area in DeWitt.
As a young adult, Hilmers’ job took him above the world. He now has work around the world, with goals that include trying to eradicate iron deficiencies in an estimated 2 billion people.
“I had a somewhat circuitous path to becoming a doctor since I did not start medical school until more than 20 years after completing my undergraduate education,” he said Thursday.
Hilmers graduated in 1968 from high school in DeWitt, in 1972 from Cornell College in Mount Vernon Iowa, and then entered the U.S. Marine Corps. He was a Marine aviator and engineer and a NASA astronaut, flying on four shuttle missions, including the 1985 trip that immediately followed the Challenger explosion, which occurred on liftoff and killed the entire crew.
In an interview Thursday, he shared his views on health-care reform, the status of NASA and other topics:
“Double-digit increases in health-care costs would bankrupt us,” Hilmers said. “I’m a little wary, like a lot of other people. But doing nothing is not an option. I’m going to give it my full support.”
The Affordable Care Act will take time to process. “I’ve thought about it quite a bit: We want to empower people to really take care of themselves. So many problems I see as a physician are a result of poor habits and lack of preventative care.”
Hilmers and other astronauts are frustrated at the current state of NASA. When the space race moved into high gear in the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy had a specific goal to reach the moon in 10 years, Hilmers said, and that was accomplished through vision and commitment.
“Right now, we don’t have a great vision of what we want to do, like ‘Go to Mars in 15 years, and we’ll give you $10 billion a year to do that.’ That’s just not going to happen,” Hilmers said.
He is astonished that the U.S. government provided economic stimulus money to General Motors and other entities but failed to fully fund NASA. He also is deeply concerned about what he described as the nation’s inability to put an astronaut into space for the first time in decades.
As for private individuals going into space, Hilmers agreed it is all right for those who can afford it but said private businesses will operate with an eye toward profits, not for the national interest.
The main nutrition challenge that Hilmers is addressing is to help reduce iron deficiencies around the world. Those deficiencies is part of other problems, including as malaria and malnutrition.
He currently has a project in India and another one that involves the Coca-Cola Co. Now in development is a type of orange drink that has vitamins and minerals. The beverage company already has established marketing and distribution channels around the world, Hilmers said. “There’s not one magic bullet to cure malnutrition, but it’s a tool,” he said of the drink.
Hilmers takes about four mission trips a year and soon heads to Cambodia. He will bring along pediatric residents from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, as a teaching opportunity.
“We will see hundreds of people a day,” he said, some of whom they can’t help much. But for others, they can provide expert care that really changes a life. “That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”
Exercise equipment donated by Genesis and installed in a park in DeWitt will be dedicated in memory of Paul Hilmers, the doctor’s father, who died earlier this year.
Paul Hilmers was an athletic man who was a great support for his son. He attended all athletic events that involved David Hilmers in high school and college and also went to four shuttle launches.
Paul Hilmers was living in a nursing home near O’Hare International Airport in Chicago when the devastating earthquake occurred in Haiti earlier this year. David Hilmers and his mission team quickly found a flight to Haiti that went through O’Hare. He had time to see his father before leaving the country. “He was as clear and lucid as he’d been in a long time,” David Hilmers said. “We had a really good visit.”
Hilmers went to Haiti where he worked in a hospital nearly nonstop. Three days later, he found out his father had died. But he knew his father would want him to finish the mission, so he did.