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Posted: April 16, 2010 12:30 a.m.

Researcher David Simons passes away

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Dr. David G. Simons spent his life marveling at the world around him and pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and experience. But no matter his project of the day, the focus was always to improve the lives of others.

A world-famous doctor and researcher, Simons died April 5 due to congestive heart and kidney failure at the age of 89. He had spent the last several years of his life in Covington, near the hometown of his wife Lois.

Friends and family members described Simons as having incredible intelligence, a thirst for knowledge and a fearless spirit, which made him a natural candidate to be a pioneer, first in the pre-NASA space program and later in the field of chronic muscle pain.

"That enabled him to truly give back to the world in a way few of us ever can," said his niece Leslie Mason.

He was featured on the cover of the Sept. 2, 1957, edition of "Life" magazine for his work on the U.S. Air Force’s Man High project, which was created to design a space capsule prototype and study the effects of cosmic radiation on the body. After testing the effects of simulated space flight on monkeys, Simons himself went up in a sealed aluminum capsule held aloft by a 3-million cubic-foot balloon. He spent 32 hours in the capsule, 19 miles above earth, above 99 percent of the earth’s atmosphere: the longest such flight at that altitude. The history channel also covered the project.

"During the flight I experienced fear that approached panic. It would be silly to deny it. There were crises that might have been fatal to anyone but a trained balloonist who was also an aero-medical physician and amateur meteorologist," he said in his first-hand account in "Life."

Simons was all those things and much more. When people would ask his assistant to speak to him about the Man High experience, he would say that was in the past and he wanted to talk about what he was doing now. He could probably be diagnosed as a workaholic, given how often a new idea would pop into his brain and cause him to work. Personal assistant Sharon Barker said friends would frequently drive by and see the lights on at 2 a.m. in the morning.

But Simons also had a wonderful sense of humor and always emphasized the positive traits that he saw in others. He was quick to praise and used any success as a reason celebrate.

Whether it was finishing a chapter in a book or successfully turning an idea into a project, Simons would frequently take his staff of research assistants out for dinner. He also had a sign on the wall that simply said "Yippee"; he would uncover it when the group accomplished a task.

The group had frequent successes during the years Simons spent trying to find the cause of chronic muscle pain. His daughter Susan Ganstrom said Simons worked in the field for nearly 40 years, because he cared about people. In the 1970s doctors didn’t understand muscle pain and didn’t know what caused disorders like charley horses and TMJ; so they ignored the causes and simply treated the symptoms.

"He cared about people, and as a doctor, he got frustrated at the number of people in pain, and didn’t want them to be on pain pills for the rest of their lives. What kind of a solution is this? Let’s pioneer a solution," she said.

Simons became the leading authority in the field, after collaborating with the field’s original pioneer Dr. Janet Travell. She said the field focused on studying why muscles locked up and how to unlock them, also known as myofascial trigger points, through methods like massages and ice treatments. Over the past several years, Simons had worked with teachers at Georgia State University and doctors at Mercer University, in addition to the hundreds of doctors he communicated with around the globe.

Barker said two of his mentees at Mercer will work with Simons’ research assistants to complete the third volume on trigger points. Surprisingly, none of Simons’ assistants are medical experts, but that didn’t matter to Simons. Barker and assistant Samantha Pierce said their interviews focused more on personality.

"He installed confidence in you and never talked down to you. I told him when I was first hired that I had no medical background, but he talked to me like a colleague. If you asked, he would explain things to you again and again," Barker said.

At the same time he was a perfectionist, and expected the work that he and his team produced to be great. And when fellow doctors and researches asked for him for feedback about their work, he would tell them his honest opinion, because faulty work didn’t help anyone.

Simons had many personality quirks, whether it was his ability to argue on any subject, his philosophy that verbal was actually the worst form of communication or the fact he had to redesign every gadget and device he ever bought. But in the end, it was his determination to make the world a better place that left the biggest impression on those around him.

He convinced his caregiver Angela Holcomb she could some day be a nurse and eventually a doctor. He convinced his inexperienced assistants they could turn his brilliant ideas into reality. He convinced his children they could be a helpful force in the world, whether it’s Ganstrom, who is a school nurse in Idaho, his son Scott Simons, a physics teacher in Detroit, daughter Sally Whitters, a librarian in California and son Sam Simons, a computer engineer.

In a fitting ending, Simons will be cremated and his ashes will be taken to the New Mexico mountains, where the stars are brightest because of the dry desert air. As in so many fields, Simons was an amateur astronomer.

The memorial service will be held at 2 p.m., May 15 at the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, where he and his wife were long-time members. The David Goodman Simons memorial fund will also be set up at Mercer University in his name to continue research into solving chronic muscle pain.

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