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David Geffen School of Medicine

Sky’s the Limit

  Dr. Marvin Jackson

Dr. Marvin Jackson in the Space Shuttle Simulator at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Photo: Dr. Anil Menon

After graduating from the Charles Drew/UCLA Medical Education Program, Marvin Jackson, MD ’93, worked for a year in the UCLA Cerebral Blood Flow Laboratory of Neil Martin, MD, chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He then completed a neurosurgery residency in Washington, D.C., and a civilian aerospace-medicine residency in Dayton, Ohio. In 1999, as a volunteer team member for Physicians for Peace: Liberia Mission, he performed neurosurgery and plastic, orthopaedic and oral, facial and maxillary surgeries at John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Monrovia, Liberia, as its civil war abated. During his residency in Ohio, Dr. Jackson rotated to the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, in Houston, Texas, where he was part of the U.S. medical-officer team for the International Space Station Medical Standards Working Group and NASA’s internal efforts to revise the astronaut-selection-and-retention requirements. He also spent time at the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, reviewing neurology and neurosurgery cases, and at Ohio’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in the special-projects lab for vestibular issues, along with the flight-medicine clinic and the hyperbaric-medicine chambers.

In 2014, after eight years of service in the Great Lakes regional Office of Aerospace Medicine, I was named Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Flight Surgeon of the Year. This three-physician office is responsible for the medical issues associated with pilots, air traffic controllers (ATCs) and technical-operations staff working within the eight states of the Upper Midwest, from Michigan through North and South Dakota. In particular, I am responsible for assessing the fitness for duty of 3,500 ATCs, who staff on-board positions at four en-route centers and more than 60 air-traffic-control towers. I also serve as the Medical Review Officer for FAA employees with substance-abuse issues, and I direct their treatment and rehabilitation in conjunction with the Employee Assistance Program/Human Resources Division and Magellan Health Services. I also assist the legal counsel, labor relations and security divisions with medical issues that arise in the various workplaces throughout the National Airspace System.

Many patients face medical challenges and recover with minimal involvement from my office. However, many with serious life-altering conditions find themselves looking for clear answers from not only their treating physicians, but also from the flight surgeons regarding the possible impact on their careers and lifelong passion. In Great Lakes, we have been successful in helping longtime employees addicted to cocaine and alcohol recover and return to operational duty with a good foundation for sustained recovery. Some individuals with benign intracranial tumors have now been allowed to continue their careers, as long as they follow through with frequent reporting and imaging scans. There is the possibility that those who have undergone successful surgical and medical treatment for low-grade gliomas with favorable biomarkers will receive approval to continue, whereas in the past, such employees would most certainly face an end to their careers. In all, we work to use the best medical knowledge to make aeromedical decisions for those who work in the most hostile environments on and off this planet.

Beyond my regional duties, I serve as the nationwide team lead for the ATC pre-employment medical-screening process, which involves 10 flight surgeons and more than 20 support staff across the U.S. A long-range plan for increases in ATC hiring, pilot certification and changes within medicine as a whole requires an ongoing assessment of business processes and the latest technology and medical informatics. This is the task of the Enterprise Architecture Working Group, which consists of flight surgeons — of which I am one — IT support and FAA leadership in Washington D.C.

Since 2010, the Federal Air Surgeon has supported greater scrutiny of individuals seeking medical clearance or certification following the diagnosis and/or treatment of neurologic conditions. Previously, many such candidates were denied or disqualified for conditions for which the patient had the potential for recovery and full performance. As a result, I am one of several physicians — both within and outside of the FAA — who participate in a quarterly neurology panel, which reviews the merits of such cases. Moreover, I, like many on the neurology panel, are part of the International Aerospace Neurology Consortium.


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