In the Pipeline: Pushing for change after tragedy

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first manned mission of Skylab, the first U.S. orbital space station.

Skylab 2, as it was called, set off to repair the space station, and was led by Cmdr. Peter Conrad. As you probably remember, Conrad was also the third man to walk on the moon, as commander of Apollo 12.

But did you know he was also a long time resident of Huntington Beach?

Recently, as my family and I drove down winding route 150 into Ojai, we were reminded of this great American hero. After all, it was on this road that the 69-year-old Conrad died from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident in July of 1999.

This memory made think me think about reaching out to his wife, Nancy, to learn more about this incredible man. And I’m so glad I did. I found out some amazing things not just about his life, but also the remarkable endeavors Nancy has undertaken in the wake of her terrible loss.

You may know that Nancy penned the best selling book, “Rocketman: Astronaut Pete Conrad’s Incredible Ride to the Moon and Beyond,” in the years after his death. But she also became an advocate as a result of how Conrad died, and her efforts have led to changes to how trauma victims are dealt with.

She lives in Washington, D.C., now, and we spoke just before she came back to Orange County this week to speak (along with President Bill Clinton) in Laguna Beach at the first Patient Safety, Science and Technology Summit.

Her husband had missions in space. Nancy’s mission is to make sure more people don’t die like her husband did, because as she explained, his death was preventable.

“Here’s a guy who rides a man-rated bomb 240,000 miles from earth, spends his whole life in high performance systems built for safety and then dies a preventable death from a system failure — how does that happen?”

That system failure involved a small community hospital in Ventura County that was ill equipped, as many are, to deal with serious trauma. So Nancy decided to change things.

As she told me, “A few months after Pete died, a report came out from the Institute of Medicine that helped me start to understand the massive problems that can occur, the failure to rescue, the medical errors, safe blood use — all three things that happened to Pete.

“I thought, what could medicine learn from aerospace and aviation? So I went to Johnson Space Center and met with doctors to learn what would make sense in creating high performance environments within these hospitals, especially small community hospitals that lack a proper trauma center. I worked with doctors to set up a system to help these communities so they could hand off trauma victims to better-equipped professionals. Too many people die unnecessarily and so I wanted to bring awareness to this issue.”

Today, thanks to efforts spearheaded by Nancy, trauma centers throughout Ventura County deal with these injuries in a much more intensive manner. And other communities are taking notice and completely redesigning how they deal with trauma.

Tearfully recalling that fateful day, Nancy told me she received a call at home in Huntington Beach about 11:30 a.m. saying there had been an accident but that things seemed OK, that Pete had sustained a few broken ribs, would require surgery but was in good hands.

She drove three hours to Ojai Valley Hospital and when she arrived things had changed for the worse. She was given scant details upon her arrival, then several hours later a doctor came in, asked for a Mrs. Conrad, said “He’s dead” and walked out of the room. Just like that.

Later, a highway patrolman, on scene at the accident, called her to say he was shocked, that Conrad was fully conscious at the scene and that things did not seem that serious. Obviously things were worse than they appeared, but at the hospital, he died of internal bleeding.

How she was treated at the hospital and the fact that the true trauma was not properly dealt with made Nancy angry, which led her on this crusade to help hospitals understand serious trauma, and how it must be dealt with (as it applies to both victims and their families).

And she has not stopped there.

In 2008, Nancy created the not-for-profit Pete Conrad Foundation, which features the Spirit of Innovation Challenge, an annual competition that challenges high school students to solve real-world challenges by using science, technology, entrepreneurship and innovation.

“We want to give kids a skill set to succeed,” she told me. “How else do we keep this country innovating, keep doing that and creating ways to sustain our knowledge based economy?

She also created the PETE (Performance Excellence Transfer Enterprise) Award, which is given to real life heroes involved in patient safety.

Yet for how she eloquently describes her blur of efforts, this passionate activist is perhaps most effective when she talks about her husband and their life together in Huntington Beach (she sold the family home in 2005 and now lives in D.C.).

“We loved our life there. We lived from 1990 to ’99 in Sea Cliff and would walk to the beach every day that we could, then down to Golden West, hang a left and go home. Pete worked at McDonnell Douglas then, just a 12-minute commute.

“We just loved that town. He was the parade grand marshal one year, we had good friends — it was lovely. So few people were aware of what Pete had done! But he was full of life, not full of himself, so many saw him as I did, as an amazingly charismatic, funny man that everyone seemed to gravitate to. I thought he’d live well into his 90s. But he didn’t.”

As for how she has channeled the pain of loss into so many productive things, Nancy added, “For me, the only way to get out of being a victim is to do a tai chi — take the negative and make a positive from it. I’ve always been an educator. So now I’m just teaching people about patient care, to help prevent the same thing that happened to Pete.”

Note — in last week’s column bout the mysterious Lloyd Wright sign, Patrick Teirney had said that a Sav-On logo was visible on it. He let me know after it was actually a Safeway logo.

Chris Epting is the author of 19 books, including the new “Baseball in Orange County,” from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at