Chilean miners: Medical condition after the rescue

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An emotional scene in Chile as one by one, the first six miners were raised to the surface and reunited with their families.

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Michael Duncan
Chief Medical Officer and Lead, NASA Team to Chile
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 9:15 AM

After 10 weeks in a dark, hot purgatory 2,000 feet underground, the first of 33 trapped miners were hoisted to freedom early Wednesday, a rescue marking the beginning of the end of a drama that captivated people worldwide.

Dr. Michael Duncan, chief medical officer and lead of the NASA team that went to Chile, was online Wednesday, Oct. 13, at 9:15 a.m. ET to discuss the health of the miners.

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Michael Duncan: Good morning. This is Mike Duncan. I was privileged to travel to Chile at the request of the Chilean government and we participated in consultations with the Chilean medical doctors and engineers in the care of the miners and the rescue plan.

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Washington, D.C.: What is the main health concern of the miners now that they're up and out? Will they have to be under constant surveillance? How long will they be observed?

Michael Duncan: Each of the miners will be observed for any medical conditions that they may have developed. Of course, we're looking for things like skin infections or infections of the sinuses or the lungs. Something that they may have acquired due to exposure to the warm, humid and dusty conditions in the mine.

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Richmond, Va.: This is a psychological health question. In situations like this, there must have been extraordinary bonding (of one sort or another) while the miners were trapped together, but when they are all released and after months of adjustment, will they ever want to see each other again, because the bonds are still in place, or will they never want to see each other again, because the pain of the remembrances are so strong?

Michael Duncan: I believe that the comraderie and the bonding that the miners have developed through this ordeal will always keep them together. I think it's much like someone being in the military, someone who has served in war time, for example. There's always a bond to the comrade that they faced danger with. Each miner will have his own reaction but I think for the most part they will want to stay as close as they can and in fact, we are hearing that on the media reports from the mine site that the miners who have been rescued want to stay until all the miners are on the surface. So they still have that cohesive bond of this experience.

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La Paz : Now that the miners are a sort of global heroes and are receiving the attention of the whole world, and media, and so on, they will receive a lot of pressure. Also receiving loads of money and fame. But are they going to control this pressure? Or is it possible that too much pressure on some of them will affect negatively (let say depression, alcohol, drugs, etc.)

Michael Duncan: I think that those are certainly some of the negative possibilities that could come out of this but the Chilean doctors and psychologists have been working with the miners and their families in an effort to educate them on these types of issues and the sudden celebrity that the miners now find themselves in. The Chilean doctors and psychologists are prepared to work with the miners and their families to try to prevent these types of issues from occurring.

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Springfield, Ill.: What was the major medical help that NASA provided which seemed to help the most-- general health care, specialized health issues that a certain miner may have had, or dietary suggestions? (or others)

Michael Duncan: I think what we brought to the table for the Chileans was our experience in behavior health support, not only in terms of the confinement and entrapment for that period of time but also what the miners and the families could experience once the miner had been rescued. In working with our astronauts and their families we prepare them beforehand and we support them during the mission and we support them after the astronaut returns. And I think our expertise in those areas was very helpful for the Chilean doctors and psychologists.

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Malaysia: One of the experts says that one in five will crack up. Do you think that's sensationalizing or "fact"? If so anything that can be done, what would they need?

Michael Duncan: I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist and would not want to speculate on the percentages. We certainly recognize that the miners and their families will be under significant pressure and the Chilean doctors and psychologists are prepared to help them through this difficult time.

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Fairfax, Va.: I was surprised at the beginning of this story to hear that NASA was to be involved. That seemed to come out of left field. Does NASA do this often?

Michael Duncan: The Chileans, through the Chilean space agency, contacted NASA and this was the result of the fact that both agencies participate in the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The Chileans felt that NASA, because of its experience in long duration space flight might have something to offer with regards to medical care and behavioral health support. And for NASA it was a way of bringing our knowledge of space flight back down to the ground to help the people earth.

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Annapolis, Md.: Do the miners have to be in isolation for a period of time? When can they go home?

Michael Duncan: The miners do not have to be in isolation or quarantine. They will, however, be sheltered away from the pressures of the media and other entities that want to talk to them. And I think that each miner and the family will react differently and therefore I couldn't predict when the miners will be allowed to go home.

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Perryville, Md.: The miners looked, overall to me, unusually good. They didn't seem to look emaciated. What did you think?

Michael Duncan: The video that I've seen of the miners -- they do look very good. Of course, if we were to compare their file photos with photos of them now I'm sure we would be able to appreciate weight loss. The Chilean doctors and the nutritionists have done an excellent job in supporting the health and nutritional status and I think this shows in the video clips how successful that has been.

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Michael Duncan: Thank you for the questions. This is an exciting day where we will continue to follow the rescue to what we hope is a successful conclusion.

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