It's Not Over Yet: Chilean Miners Face Slew of Health Issues

If you feel nervous getting into an MRI machine – just imagine how the 33 trapped Chilean miners will feel when they climb inside the custom built rescue-capsule that will pull them up to safety through more than 2,000 feet of jagged earth.

Standing at about 13 feet tall, with an interior height of 6 feet, 4 inches and a diameter less than 22 inches – it’s going to be a very tight and harrowing ride to the surface.

“It’s a tiny capsule and people can become extremely claustrophobic,” Dr. Gabe Wilson, associate director of emergency medicine at St. Luke's Hospital in New York City, told “That’s why panic is probably the biggest potential issue.”

Symptoms of claustrophobia include those typical of a panic attack such as sweating, rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, light-headedness or fainting and nausea.

“Some people will have no difficulty – they are miners after all and they are used to it,” Wilson said. “But their psyche is not as strong as usual, so there could be problems.”

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In an effort to keep things calm inside the capsule, a small video camera will be trained on each miner's face so he can be watched as he ascends. Each will also have a mask attached to an oxygen tank affixed to their face and two-way voice communication.

The miners will also wear sweaters because they'll experience a shift in climate from about 90 degrees Fahrenheit underground to temperatures hovering near freezing if they emerge at night. And those coming out during daylight hours will wear sunglasses.

Over the past week, all the miners underwent tests to assess their health.

Jaime Manalich, the health minister, said some of their biggest concerns had to do with acute hypertension in some of the miners as well as the opposite — sudden drops in blood pressure.
“Even though some of the miners may have high blood pressure to begin with – I would be more worried about the blood pressure being too low, especially with them in an upright position moving upwards,” Wilson said.

There are several factors that can bring on low blood pressure, including dehydration and a sudden change in body position, usually from lying down to standing, which can lead to symptoms of dizziness, light-headedness and even fainting.

Another concern is blood clotting. To counteract it, the miners each began taking 100 milligrams of aspirin on Sunday, Manalich said. They will also put on compression socks and a special girdle and will be on a special high-calorie liquid prepared and donated by NASA for the final six hours before being removed.

The liquid-only diet is to prevent them from becoming nauseated. The rescue capsule is expected to rotate 350 degrees some 10 to 12 times through curves in the 28-inch-diameter escape hole on its way up, he added.

“As far as blood clots, it’s a pretty rapid accent, so they won’t be immobilized for a long time and presumably they will be well hydrated,” Wilson said. “Also, it was a great precaution to give them aspirin, so it sounds like it’s probably not going to be a huge issue.”

Wilson said the compression socks were also a good idea since they are going to be completely upright in the capsule.

“Being completely upright could result in venous pooling, which happens when blood collects in the lower extremities, and that’s one problem that can lead to low pressure or hypotension,” he said. “It’s a similar thing that happens on a very hot day, where you’re standing for a long period of time, and you feel faint. The compression socks keep pushing blood upwards to maintain a adequate blood pressure.”

After being extracted, the miners will be ushered to ambulances that will take them to a triage station, where they will be checked out by doctors. After that, they will be kept for 48 hours of observation at a nearby hospital.

“I think they are being extremely cautious,” Wilson said. “They should be able to get out just fine as long as the mechanics work. I think psychologically, the miners will be able to handle it.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.