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Hope for Flyers Battling Disease

by Paul Engstrom, Aviation Writer and IFA Member

Worried that the feds will automatically ground you because of high blood pressure, a heart condition, stroke, epilepsy, alcoholism or some other serious ailment?

Statistics from the Federal Aviation Administration's Civil Aeromedical Institute in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, should ease your concern. Did you know, for example, that more than 24,000 private pilots taking medication for high blood pressure were certified in 1999?

Another 2,557 general aviation pilots certified that year had previously suffered a heart attack, 137 were relying on a mechanical heart valve, 741 had had a stroke, 154 were battling epilepsy, 436 were fighting alcoholism, 2,364 had acceptable vision in only one eye and 103 were living with a transplanted liver or kidney.

Close to 4,500 diabetic aviators'nearly triple the number just five years earlier'won certification, too, according to Dr. Warren Silberman, manager of the FAA's Aeromedical Certification Division, also in Oklahoma City. Indeed, the agency ended its outright ban on pilots with insulin-treated diabetes mellitus in late 1996.

The bottom line: Pilots are finding it much easier now than in years past to get or maintain 'discretionary medical certification' if they have health problems. Such certification means the FAA has determined that while the applicant doesn't strictly meet its medical standards, he or she can still fly safely under certain conditions.

The agency has raised the bar because of new treatments and medical advances that enable otherwise unhealthy pilots to perform up to par, according to Stanley Mohler, MD, director of Aerospace Medicine at Wright State University School of Medicine in Dayton, Ohio.

These new therapies and advances range from effective drugs and better diagnostic techniques, such as imaging, to laser surgery, highly functional prosthetics, more-successful organ transplants, the insertion of devices called stents to boost blood flow through clogged arteries, and a better understanding of addiction.

Also, as medical professionals have learned in recent years, proper lifestyle and behavior can play a huge role in reversing the fallout from disease, to the point that once-disabled pilots can return to the skies. Less salt and alcohol, maintaining proper weight and more exercise, for instance, are key to managing high blood pressure without drugs.

But to keep or regain medical certification, pilots can't just acknowledge the possibility of better health, says Mohler at Wright State University. Aviation medical examiners want evidence of improvement, he says, be it through treatment or lifestyle changes that bespeak a can-do attitude.

See the related article 'How to Speed Your Medical Certification.'

When he isn't flying, Paul Engstrom writes and edits from Sebastopol, CA

The information contained herein is meant for informational purposes only. Neither IFA, nor Paul Engstrom assume any responsibility or liability for events that occur due to actions you or others on your behalf take based on the information given in this article. You are proceeding at your own risk. It is strongly advised that you seek the opinion and advice of a qualified aviation medical examiner and appropriate medical physician for any medical needs you may have.