Dee O’Hara – Nurse to NASA's First Astronauts

 

When Lieutenant Dee O’Hara appeared on the nationally televised game show To Tell the Truth in 1962, she was introduced as “the official nurse, and the only nurse, assigned to the seven United States astronauts.” Although the two other contestants – one deceptively dressed in an Air Force uniform – did their best to fool the panel, they were no match for Dee.  All four panelists correctly identified her as the ‘real’ Dee O’Hara.

 

Dee was in her early 20s when she was chosen to be the nurse for the first group of NASA astronauts, the Mercury 7, in 1959.  As such, she was not only a caregiver, but a friend and confidante to men like Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter.  She worked with astronauts through the early 1970s before moving to a research role at NASA Ames, but is best known for her pioneering work at Cape Canaveral.

 

It is such an honor to talk to you. How many years have you been a nurse?

 

I graduated in 1956 and I’ve been a nurse since then.  I just recently gave up my license.  In order to renew, you needed to have so many hours of clinical work and I could never attain that many clinical hours, simply because I was in research.

 

Tell me what you’re doing now. You’re still working with NASA?

 

When I left Houston, I was able to get a lateral transfer out here to Ames Research Center in California.  I set up a 12-bed metabolic ward, like a miniature hospital, to do human research. We would take subjects and put them to bed for periods of time. I would take the researcher’s experiment – his document – and put the study together:  getting the subjects, the nursing staff, all the supplies we needed, the doctors and the dieticians.  I would staff the facility for that particular experiment. I did that until NASA decided to move their human research work to Houston – to UTMB [University of Texas Medical Branch] in Galveston, Texas.

 

Now, I work for the chief medical officer at NASA Ames.  We are responsible for all the narcotics and controlled substances that come to the center, the drug-free workplace, and I monitor all the subject physicals and records.

 

It doesn’t sound like you’ve given any thought to retirement.

 

I need to stay connected.  I don’t want to sit at home and do nothing, because I am very good at that, believe me.

 

Was the research you were doing related to manned spaceflight?

 

Yes, that is why we put subjects to bed for varying periods of time and we put them head down.  We did a study with Russia back in 1976, I believe, and found that putting subjects in a head-down position mimicked the effects of weightlessness very well.  That way, we could do 12 subjects at a time and check a number of body systems to get the data.  We used bedrest as a way of mimicking spaceflight and the studies were all shuttle-related.

 

That research must have been very valuable to NASA as they entered the space shuttle era.

 

It was interesting and I loved it.  I loved the subjects.  They were just wonderful.  These were very healthy subjects and members of the community.  I had a wonderful pool of subjects. I had at least seven subjects who would come for every study that we had. They were very loyal and we knew the data we got from them was accurate.  We had very strict rules, especially during bedrest.  This pool of subjects kept coming back every time I put out the call and we could trust them.

 

Let’s go back in time a little bit. Growing up, did you always want to be a nurse?

 

No, it was the last thing in the world I thought of.  My mother was sick one time and was in the hospital. I don’t remember what age I was, but it was before high school, and I got so sick that I had to go sit in the lounge until I could recover. Nursing was the last thing in the world for me.  In high school, they had a career day.  I went to that and a nurse from Providence Hospital in Portland, Oregon came and presented.  She was so neat looking and I loved the look of the school.  A friend of mine was going and I thought, “If she can be a nurse, then I can, too.” I signed up for it, then immediately had great doubts. But, the minute I walked through the door at the school, I knew I had made the right decision.  I just knew.

 

Was there something in particular that let you know it was where you belonged?

 

It was just a feeling inside.  I felt at home – which was strange, because it was my first time away from home – but the minute I went in there and got settled, I knew I’d made the right decision.  There was no rhyme or reason for it, because it was the last thing in the world I was supposedly cut out to do.

 

How did your nursing education lead to your work with NASA?

 

After I graduated, I became an OR nurse at what was then the University of Oregon Medical Center in Portland. I loved surgery!  I was there for a year or so, but after standing 12-14 hours a day at the [operating] table, my back ached and it got to where I was miserable.  Then, I decided I would try office nursing and I was hired by three doctors.  They were called diagnosticians back then, but now they’re called medical internists. When I worked for them, I learned to do x-rays, draw blood, a little bit of everything.  I cleaned the needles and slides, did the urinalyses, and all of those things.

 

My roommate came home one day and said, “We need to join the Air Force,” and I said, “Jackie, nice girls don’t do that.”  But, for some reason, we decided to join the Air Force and see the world. We went to downtown Portland and walked into the recruiter’s office and said, “Here we are. Where do we sign?”  Of course, he was stunned that he didn’t have to go out and recruit somebody. We signed on, and she was sent to Mobile, Alabama, and I was sent to Patrick Air Force Base in Florida.

 

After I got there, the chief nurse said I was being assigned to the labor and delivery room and I said, in my infinite wisdom, “No, I really don’t want to work there, because I don’t know anything about labor and delivery.  I am an OR nurse and I would really prefer to work in surgery.” Within seconds, I found out that I was in the military and I would work where they said I was going to work.  It shows you how naïve I was.  But I was put into labor and delivery and loved it!  It was a great rotation for me.

 

I had only been there for a short while and ended up on night duty.  One morning, I got up and there was a note from my roommate saying the vice commander of the hospital wanted to see me.  I thought, “Oh, boy, what have I done?”  I was really kind of in a panic because I’d only been there such a short time.  I went to breakfast and the colonel came in and said, “Are you shaking?” and I said yes, and he said, “Well, shake a little harder because the ‘old man’ wants to see you” – the ‘old man’ being Colonel George Knauf, who was the base commander there.

     

I went in the room and the chief nurse was sitting there, and the exec officer, and a few other people.  Colonel Knauf pointed to a chair.  I sat down and he started talking about this and that, the space program, and he mentioned astronauts, which didn’t mean anything to me because I had never heard of one.  Then he mentioned NASA and I thought he said Nassau, because I had just been to Nassau with some of the pilots – we took a plane down and went to Guantanamo Bay and Jamaica – and I thought, “How did he know?”  I was really confused.  I couldn’t imagine how he knew. He kept going on and he mentioned Mercury, and I knew there was a planet named Mercury and mercury in a thermometer.  But I didn’t know what he was talking about, to be honest with you.

 

He smoked Camel cigarettes and he was tapping it down on this Zippo lighter and he was talking all this time.  Then, he turned to me and said, “Well, do you want the job or not?”  I literally turned around to look behind me, because I didn’t know who he was talking to.  He said, “You haven’t heard a damn word I’ve said, have you?” and I said, “No, sir.”  He said, “Well, do you want the job or not?” I said, “Well, I guess so,” but I had no idea what I had agreed to.

 

The meeting broke up and the chief nurse pulled me aside.  She was very angry.  She said, “Well, you are as crazy as they are.”  I said, “What do you mean?” and she said, “You have just agreed to join a group that are going to put a man on top of a rocket and send him off into space.  You’re nuts.”  I went home and I was instructed that I could not say a word to anybody.  It was all supposed to be really top secret.

 

After you accepted the position, what happened next?

 

The next day, I went to the exec officer and I said, “Can I ask you a question?  Why me?”  He said, “Colonel Knauf has been charged with putting together medical teams for the Project Mercury program.  He will be putting the people in place that will go out aboard ship and the people at the Cape to support the program.”  He had decided that NASA needed a nurse, so he went to Washington DC to the Air Force headquarters up there to look through the files to find a nurse.  He looked through everything and didn’t see what he wanted, so he came back here and the colonel said, “Well, maybe I’ve got somebody here.” Apparently, he observed me for two weeks and said, “She’s the one.”  I think it was because I had the varied background in lab work, x-ray, surgery and that sort of thing.

 

Photo credit: NASA.  

Nurse Dolores "Dee" O'Hara draws a blood sample from astronaut John Glenn. 

Once you got started at NASA, what were your responsibilities?

 

I set up the preflight medical exam area out at the Cape in Hangar S – the famous Hangar S. I put together the crew quarters and the exam room in an area up on the second floor. During Mercury, there weren’t very many people and the facilities were small. We had a chamber that tested the spacecraft over in one corner.  It was not anywhere near the scale that it is now.  I set up the laboratory and the exam room so that when these first seven were to come down to the Cape, they had a place to come to and could be seen.

 

How did you first meet the Mercury 7 astronauts?

 

That was kind of a fluke.  I walked down the hall one day and opened the door into this conference room, and there they sat!  I said, “Oh, excuse me,” and I slammed the door shut and left.  I was terrified.  I went back to my office and John Glenn came up and he said, “Don’t be frightened.  Come back and meet everybody.”  I reluctantly went back and he introduced me to everybody.  I didn’t know what to say to them, so I said, “Would you like something to drink?” and, naturally, they said yes. That’s how I met them – I sort of just walked in on them.

 

What were your first impressions when you met them?

 

I was stunned, I guess, to see them all together in one room.  They were announced [as the first group of astronauts] in April of 1959, and I was selected in November of that year. This happened in January of 1960. Their simulators and that sort of thing were all located at the Cape.  The first seven were all housed at Langley Air Force Base, because they were all military.  Those that were assigned to a flight would come down to the Cape to do their simulator training.  But all seven happened to be there at the same time, which was not normal, but there was a big meeting or something that they went to.  Obviously, as you work with them, you get to know them.  We all became friends and I was not intimidated at all.

 

During your time at NASA, did you face any difficulties or challenges, especially as the first-ever nurse to the astronauts?

 

Colonel Knauf initially decided that there was going to be a nurse, but NASA said, “No, we don’t need a nurse.  We don’t want a nurse.”  His theory behind it was – as you well know – flight surgeons are the only ones that can ground a pilot.  So, the astronauts are very fearful of flight surgeons.  He wanted someone that they would trust and would talk to, who would know if they were ill or not feeling well.  She might pick up on it because they sure weren’t going to tell a doctor.  That was why he wanted a nurse involved right from the beginning and, as it turned out, that is the way it worked.  I had an unwritten agreement with them.  I always told them that they could come to me with anything they wanted to and I would never betray them.  But, if they came to me and it was something that, in my opinion, would jeopardize the mission, then, morally and ethically, I would have to tell a doctor.  That was the understanding and that was the way it worked.

 

Did that ever happen?

 

There were a couple of times when they came to me with things and we worked it out, and I had tests done and things like that.  I don’t want to go into detail about that.  But their names were never used and no one ever knew, mainly because it was nothing serious.

       

That is a lot of responsibility at a young age.

 

It was, but I was the only one out there, so that was the way it worked.

 

What do you recall about your appearance on To Tell the Truth?

 

Oh, my goodness!  You know about that?  It was kind of fun, but I was scared stiff, too.  I remember thinking the set was very tacky looking.  On TV it looked really nice, but in reality, it wasn’t.

 

How did you end up on the show?

 

Back then, I was invited to everything.  If you were going to open a new Safeway store, I was supposed to be at that.  The Air Force promoted it because it was a form of advertisement for Air Force nurses. I’m not complaining about it but, with missions, I couldn’t go to everything.

 

Have you thought about writing a book?

 

I’ve been asked to do that a number of times.  Early on, I was offered several hundred thousand dollars to write a book.  The reason I have not written a book, nor would I probably ever write a book, is that I was allowed to be very, very close to these guys, and you don’t go talking about your patients.  A lot of people don’t understand that, but there is an ethical thing here that you really don’t discuss your patients.

 

They allowed me to be very close to them and I just wouldn’t betray any of that, even though nothing all that exotic happened. When things are down in black and white on a page, there’s no changing it.  You can’t get the nuances in telling stories, and I was always so afraid that I would offend them.  I would not reveal a lot of the things that a publisher would probably want.  I would be so uncomfortable doing it.

 

Listening to your story, it seems like, through a series of unplanned occurrences, you ended up with this amazing opportunity.

 

It was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime job.

 

Is the lesson maybe to be open to adventure?  From the time you made the decision in high school to go to nursing school, you were up for joining the Air Force when your roommate suggested it, and you were up for the NASA position even though you weren’t sure what you were getting into.

 

I think you said it best.  Be open to all opportunities.  It doesn’t mean you have to take them, but certainly listen. Go with what your gut tells you to do. I’m not sure what propelled me to do all these things, but maybe it was just gut instinct. The bottom line in all of this is that I was in the right place at the right time.  It just worked out.

 

Photo courtesy of Spacefest by Novaspace Galleries.  

Nurse to NASA's first astronauts, Dee O'Hara (left), with Discover Con Inspiring Figures Senior Writer, Becca Gladden, at Spacefest IX in Tucson, AZ.  

 

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