Challenge to keep miners fit and sane

By Jerome Taylor

Psychologists are encouraging trapped men to sing and play cards to stave off boredom

The mission to free the 33 miners trapped in Chile is one of the most complicated rescue attempts so far in mining history and will involve much more than simply drilling a hole wide enough to rescue the men.

Emergency workers and doctors need to keep the miners physically and mentally healthy as they face months underground in an area the size of a small apartment.

Physical health

Doctors are most concerned about the miners contracting infections or getting food poisoning. If acute diarrhoea were to break out, it could be disastrous for a group of individuals living in such a confined space with limited access to drinking water, and one of the first instructions given to the miners was to dig a toilet.

With just two 8cm-wide boreholes linking the miners to health officials on the surface, there is a limit to what medical supplies could be sent down to the men in an emergency.

One of the miners, Johnny Barrios, has experience as a nurse and he has been asked to keep an eye on his colleagues' health and inform doctors of any changes.

Mental health

Even for professionals accustomed to working in the tight confines of a mine, the prospect of spending months underground will inevitably play havoc with the miners' mental health.

"We expect that after the initial euphoria of being found, we will likely see a period of depression and anguish," said Chile's Health Minister Jaime Manalich.

"It would be naive to think they can keep their spirits up like this."

A number of psychologists are developing ways to keep the miners upbeat, encouraging them to sing, play card games to stave off boredom, follow a simple work routine and switch the lights off at night to mimic what is happening on the surface. A second borehole has been dug into the miners' chamber which will soon provide them with regular communication to their loved ones.

Doctors have also sent down anti-depressants in case any of them find it hard to cope over the coming weeks.

Food and nutrition

Until they were discovered alive on Monday, the miners had been forced to severely ration their emergency supplies.

They subsisted on a meagre diet of two tablespoons of tuna and a biscuit every two days, a tough regimen that helped them survive the first 18 days underground with no outside help.

Doctors will begin sending solid foods to them in the next few days but in the meantime they have had to rely on packages of glucose, hydration gels and a protein-heavy milk drink to allow their stomachs to prepare for a more normal diet.

Fitness regime

No one is yet sure exactly how much space the men have to themselves. The emergency shelter which they fled to when the access tunnel first caved in is said to be 50sq m and it is thought that they also have access to a further tunnel with a ventilation shaft where oxygen is more plentiful.

Doctors are keen that the men exercise regularly to prevent muscle atrophy and boredom.

Many will also need to dramatically slim down. The miners have been told that their waistlines must be no more than 90cm if they are to fit through the 66cm tunnel which will be dug to retrieve them.

Camp hopeOfficials recognise that keeping relatives informed and in touch is key to maintaining stability throughout the rescue operation.

The tented city that has sprung up to accommodate them has become gradually more organised over the past 48 hours. There are now zones for children, community bulletin boards and bus shuttle services to nearby cities.

So far, the only communication between relatives and the miners has been letters, although the men are being given camera equipment so they can send up video messages.

A two-way telephone line has also been set up.

Psychologists say speaking to their loved ones could be a huge morale boost for the miners but relatives will need to be careful about what they say so as not to raise hopes too far or dash them.

- Independent

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