Deep Dive: Dr. Harry T. Whelan

Dr. Harry Whelan emerging from an ice dive Dr. Harry Whelan, the Bleser Family Endowed Chair in Neurology, professor of pediatric neurology and director of the hyperbaric medicine unit at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) has always loved the sea. His affinity would eventually take him across the world, to Latin American jungles, the South China Sea, and Russian submarines in the North Sea, but it all began in a swimming pool in Nicolet High School in Glendale, Wisconsin.

Having grown up watching “Sea Hunt” on TV, Dr. Whelan enrolled in a $10 scuba course at the high school at age 13. After completion of the course, Dr. Whelan was given a cardboard card from the instructor—an owner of a local dive shop—that identified him as a certified scuba diver.

Completing this course was a dream come true for a teenager who fell in love with the sea and its creatures at a young age and set him on a lifelong journey to explore its mystery.

It would be nearly 20 years before Dr. Whelan would scuba dive again. And one of the first things he found out was that scuba diving equipment technology had come a long way in 20 years. Back in that pool at Nicolet, the equipment didn’t have a buoyancy compensator—a key piece of equipment that allows a diver to float at the water’s surface and have neutral buoyancy when they’re diving so they neither sink nor float. The first time Dr. Whelan encountered this piece of equipment was on his first dive trip in the Bahamas, but he didn’t let the new piece of equipment phase him. “I first learned how to use a buoyancy compensator on the back of a ship,” he says. “I just jumped in the water and figured it all out.”

Dr. Whelan had approached his medical education with the same enthusiasm and positive outlook. After graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a degree in chemistry, Dr. Whelan received his medical degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He completed a pediatrics internship and residency training at the University of Florida and a child neurology fellowship at the University of Minnesota.

A few years after that first scuba diving trip, Dr. Whelan joined the faculty at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he focused on researching brain tumors. He continued that research when he joined MCW in 1988.

A few years later, Dr. Whelan came across a postcard advertising the U.S. Navy’s undersea medical program. Dr. Whelan was intrigued. But when he reached out, 40-year-old Dr. Whelan was told he would need an age waiver. “This is really a young man’s game,” the recruiter told him. Undeterred, Dr. Whelan called up the head of the dive program in Washington, D.C., and got that age waiver. “Many people take sabbaticals to go study at Oxford or something; I took a sabbatical for Diving Medical Officer & Undersea  Medical Officer training, to serve in the US Navy,” Whelan says.

He had six months to prepare for the Navy’s intensive training program, so he joined a fitness center where he could swim laps. He knew as part of the training, he would have to swim 1,000 yards wearing an underwater demolition team vest and a blacked-out mask. So he practiced.

When he got to the training program, he was surrounded by men half his age, but his preparation made him better equipped than many of the young recruits. “I have an unfair advantage over you 20-year-olds: I’ve had twice as long to get in shape,” he joked.

Dr. Harry Whelan on a Russian SubmarineDr. Whelan’s Naval service saw him assisting a British submarine under the polar ice cap, rescuing an Australian rescue submarine and serving as the undersea medical officer during a transfer of sailors underwater between  NATO and Russian submarines—the first of its kind. Dr. Whelan was the first foreign doctor allowed to step aboard a Russian submarine.

After years of service, Dr. Whelan wanted to tailor some of his medical research to assist the Navy. One project he worked on involved figuring out a way to keep Navy divers underwater longer and with fewer risks. Stealth divers use closed circuit re-breather equipment. That equipment absorbs the carbon dioxide they exhale and recirculates the unused oxygen. While it does not produce bubbles—allowing the diver to complete covert missions—it increases the risk for seizures caused by oxygen toxicity. Dr. Whelan found that divers who followed a ketogenic diet, one that is high in fat and low in sugar, a few days before a mission had fewer symptoms of oxygen toxicity.

An upcoming study of Dr. Whelan’s involves looking at the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat traumatic brain injuries. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy—or the inhalation of 100 percent oxygen in a pressurized environment—has been used to treat infections, heal wounds and reverse poisoning. It’s also used to treat decompression sickness in divers, which can be serious. Dr. Whelan recently developed a way for divers to treat decompression sickness without the use of a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, by re-submerging with a tank of pure oxygen to use the ocean’s own pressure for treatment, which is great for divers out in the field. The current study looks at how the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy can decrease the destructive processes in severe traumatic brain injuries.

In 2014, the U.S. Armed Forces awarded Dr. Whelan the Legion of Merit, an award given for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements.

Although his days in the Navy are over, Dr. Whelan continues to use what he learned—both as a diver and as a doctor—in his current practice. As for the narrative of his life, Dr. Whelan again attributes the kismet to luck. “I was lucky to be able to combine all of my favorite things,” he says. “I’ve been able to bring something unique to undersea medicine.”

MCW’s connection to underwater discovery runs even deeper. In 1939, MCW researchers developed the first self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) devices used by deep-sea divers to prevent “the bends.”  In that same year, MCW scientists also discovered that hyperbaric oxygenation dramatically reduces red cell agglutination, a significant advance in the prevention of “the bends” during rapid decompression. 

Dr. Whelan receiving the Legion of Merit medal from the U.S. Marine Corps