Their missions – and their lives – depend on the thousands of men and women who work in the space program but never leave the ground. They, too, must be skilled and dedicated – and in optimum health. Since 1966, NASA has entrusted the healthcare of its workers to Kelsey-Seybold Clinic.
Dr. Mavis Kelsey arrived in Houston in 1949 to start a multi-specialty group practice. He brought along with him some innovative strategies that he hoped would both build a strong patient base and serve the healthcare needs of the city. One of those strategies was the practice of “company medicine,” which later became known as occupational medicine.
Kelsey-Seybold Clinic developed a very active Occupational Medicine department in the 1950s. The clinic contacted companies, offered advice on medical programs and even sent mobile clinics to provide onsite medical care for companies’ employees.
It wasn’t long before Kelsey-Seybold Clinic had 500 different company accounts. The clinic’s involvement with NASA grew out of its Occupational Medicine program.
“I knew the people who were developing NASA,” the late Dr. Kelsey said. “I was in the Air Force medical department during World War II and a large part of the medical aspect of NASA was done by people who were in the Air Force with me. They told me they’d like for our clinic to bid on some of this medical care. They knew us and thought we’d do a good job of delivering it. So we bid on it.”
In August 1966, NASA awarded Kelsey-Seybold a contract to provide medical support services for government contractor employees and civil service employees at Johnson Space Center, which at the time was known as the Manned Spacecraft Center.
When the contract took effect Oct. 1, 1966, the clinic became responsible for providing annual physical exams, emergency care and immunizations for NASA workers. Support staff – which included thermo-chemical workers, flight controllers, SCUBA divers, landing and recovery crews and those testing equipment and training astronauts – also were to be treated by the Kelsey-Seybold team.
In addition, the clinic provided round-the-clock monitoring of safety-related health issues for NASA, overseeing the health aspects of ventilation, air pollution, noise, toxicology and non-ionizing radiation.
The clinic’s contract with NASA expanded in 1968 to include aeromedical physiological support. This gave the clinic direct involvement in astronaut training, making Kelsey-Seybold responsible for providing medical support for all manned tests.
Space flights now were among the duties of the clinic’s environmental health staff, who among other things, conducted analyses of breathing gases and specimens returned from space missions. Along with these changes, the clinic took over responsibility for two portions of its medical services contract with NASA that it previously had subcontracted out to other firms – the industrial hygiene and health physics services.
The relationship that developed between Kelsey-Seybold and NASA was a mutually beneficial one that brought recognition to both. The clinic became a pacesetter in the industry, setting the standard for other occupational medicine and environmental health programs with its pioneering efforts at Johnson Space Center (JSC). No other space center had a program like the one at JSC, and it was only a matter of time before the clinic’s success there would bring more offers.
In 1973, Kelsey-Seybold signed an agreement to provide occupational medicine and environmental health services for the George C. Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. And in 1976 it added another NASA installation – the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Contracts with more clients followed: Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1978; Ames Research Center in California in 1979 and Great Lakes Naval Regional Medical Center in 1980.
Despite its growing role with NASA and other agencies, Kelsey-Seybold Clinic remained committed to serving Houston’s booming population. “Houston grew so fast that it was difficult to drive to the medical center,” Dr. Kelsey said. “We decided to open some branch clinics.” In 1976, Kelsey-Seybold began work on a new branch at Augusta Drive and Sugar Hill in west Houston which opened in April 1977. More clinics followed, including the Clear Lake Clinic on Gemini, which opened in 1985.
With business booming, Kelsey-Seybold’s branch clinics gained national notice and became a model that other medical offices around the country were adopting. In explaining the success of the branch program, Dr. Kelsey’s brother, Dr. John Kelsey, called the concept a cost-effective way of “bringing the clinic to the people.” It was a revolutionary way of providing medical care. Not surprisingly, Kelsey-Seybold was in the forefront.
That’s the logical place for Kelsey-Seybold Clinic – leading the way, trying new strategies, looking ahead. It’s a legacy that can be traced back to the clinic’s beginnings. While always mindful of the financial aspects of the business, Kelsey-Seybold has aimed to find way to fulfill a need, to serve its community—whether by helping a sick child get well or helping to put a man on the moon.