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Buried alive: The health impact on trapped miners

A two-month ordeal after a cave-in appears near ending for 33 trapped miners in Chile, as they are brought back to surface one by one. With ingenuity and cutting-edge technology, the men have survived 68 days some 625 metres underground fending off hunger, anxiety and illness in a record-setting feat of survival. But what happens after they reach the surface and how will their experience affect their future health? Gulf News attempts to answer some of those questions:

How are the miners being brought up to surface?

Paramedics and a mining expert have descended into the mine to oversee the rescue and evaluate the health of the miners. All miners coming up in the Phoenix 2 capsule to surface will need to wear sweaters for the change in temperature: from about 90 degrees underground to possibly near freezing at the surface. They must also wear sunglasses to adjust to sudden bursts of bright light.

What did the miners eat while they were underground?

From the August 5 cave-in until they established contact with the surface 17 days later, the miners rationed themselves to two spoonfuls of tuna, half a cookie and a half-full glass of milk every 48 hours. Once rescuers on the surface discovered the men with a narrow perforation drill, they began sending them hydration gel, soup and medication in narrow plastic tubes called "doves." Later, doctors transitioned the men to a solid diet followed by NASA, including meat and rice, with a strict 2,200 calorie diet to keep them slim enough to fit in the evacuation shaft just two feet (66 cm) in diameter. In the tunnel near the shelter where the men initially took refuge, they set up a chemical toilet and latrines, along with a duct providing potable water.

How did the miners communicate?

The first sign of life from the miners came on August 22, when knocking was heard on a drill head as it reached the depths of the mine. Rescuers withdrew the drill to find a note attached reading, "The 33 of us in the shelter are well." Once the first bore hole established a lifeline to the men, letters began to pass between loved ones via the "doves." Later came a fiber optic line enabling phone calls and videoconferencing. Doctors were also able to pass down a biometric belt which allowed the miners to monitor and transmit their vital signs to the surface using wireless technology.

What was their daily routine like before the rescue?

Once they were discovered, the men quickly established a regular meal schedule including breakfast, lunch, dinner and an afternoon tea. Supported by a 500 watt power line, they installed lights to simulate day and night to diminish the impact of their eventual return to the surface. Physiologists set up obligatory exercise schedules to keep the men fit for their trying passage up the escape shaft, when they may have to hold the same posture for as much as an hour. In recent weeks, the miners began to help with the drilling process, taking shifts to clear away debris that fell into the tunnel of the mine.

What happens after the miners reach the surface?

Once a miner reaches the surface, he is being taken away and ushered through inflatable tunnels to ambulances that will take them to a triage station. He is then examined by a doctor and then taken to another area to meet between one and three family members he has personally chosen. The men will then be flown by Chilean air force helicopters to a hospital in nearby Copiapo. If fog prevents air transport, ambulances will be ready to drive the miners. Every miner will be kept under observation until a full 48 hours after the last miner has surfaced.

Has the 69-day ordeal affected the miners’ health?

The health of the workers who have so far been rescued from the San Jose copper mine is “quite good,” according to Chile Health Minister Jaime Manalich. They have generally suffered an increase in their heart frequency and their blood pressure, but doctors are not worried. “In all cases they recovered satisfactorily after a while of rest in bed, without need for medication,” Manalich said. The first two miners to be rescued, Florencio Avalos and Mario Sepulveda, have already been evaluated by a dermatologist and an ophtalmologist at the Regional Hospital in Copiapo, and they have had X-rays taken. “Everything is going extraordinarily well,” he said. But the more complicated cases - including the oldest of them, Mario Gomez, - will only be known after they have under medical observation for some time.

What precautions were taken to minimize the potential health risks before the rescue operations?

Several steps have been taken to minimize the miners’ health risks before they were rescued. The first group of miners to come up are younger men, who could best relay information back to the surface and in case of emergency would have been able to activate levers to liberate the rescue capsule. Miners with health conditions were being brought up later.

What could be the possible health impact in future on the miners?

The rescue and rehabilitation are only the first steps in a longer recovery process, according to workers with NASA. Health concerns linger regarding their lack of sunlight, nutrition, effects of their confinement, lack of sleep and sanitation, according to CNN. Mental health is also a concern. The 33 miners must be reintroduced to their families and society and deal with their sudden celebrity status. Psychological adjustments will also be a hurdle: the men spent 20 days totally cut off in the dark until the first bore hole was made, and thus were in a constant life and death situation, say psychologists. Doctors will watch out for things such as nightmares, panic attacks, anxiety and claustrophobia, among other potential issues.

– With inputs from Reuters, AP, Washington Post &