PITTSBURGH – Rescuers who found the lone survivor of the West Virginia coal mining tragedy may have reached him just in time, because his lungs were starting to fill up with dust and gases, one of his doctors said Friday.
In the hour before he was discovered, Randal McCloy Jr. lost the ability to cough, sneeze or otherwise control his airway, said Dr. Richard Shannon, speaking for a team of doctors treating McCloy.
The dust and low-lying gases that settled in McCloy's lungs as he lay on his side caused inflammation in his left lung, Shannon said, adding that stabilizing the inflammation will be important for getting the miner off a ventilator.
"That does constitute a serious issue. ... We are working very diligently with keeping those airways open," Shannon said.
McCloy was taken by ambulance Thursday from a West Virginia hospital to Pittsburgh's Allegheny General Hospital, where he lay in critical condition in a medically induced coma with brain damage and other injuries from oxygen deprivation.
Doctors stressed it will take time before the extent of the brain damage is known.
Shannon said McCloy's heart is now functioning properly and his blood test results are improving.
"These are two very, very important milestones as we progress," Shannon said.
His wife, Anna, went to a local Wal-Mart to buy a Hank Williams Jr. CD, "which she intends to play in his room since that was his favorite artist," Shannon added.
Later, Anna McCloy said she did buy her husband a radio and some music — but it wasn't country.
"He does like Hank Williams, but the Metallica is what he'd like to hear right now," she said. She also bought her husband a teddy bear and some toiletries, hoping the familiar scent of his preferred deodorant and soap will help him come around.
McCloy was also given a new round of dialysis Friday to ease the accumulation of fluid in his lungs, Shannon said. It was the second time McCloy has undergone dialysis in the past three days.
McCloy underwent two oxygen treatments earlier Friday, and Shannon said the treatments went well. Doctors said McCloy has shown some movement at times, but that it was a result of changes in his medication.
"The coma at the moment is medically induced," Shannon said. "When the medications are weaned or reduced, Mr. McCloy does move; Mr. McCloy does bite down on his tube; Mr. McCloy does appear to flicker his eyelids. All those things are true. I don't want to let anyone think that is some clear indication whatsoever of the nature of the extent of his recovery or injury."
McCloy, 26, of Simpson, W.Va., was rescued early Wednesday after being trapped in the Sago Mine near Tallmansville for more than 42 hours. Twelve other miners died.
His wife said she felt her husband was reacting to her. "When I mentioned my kids and me and talking about how we loved him and were proud of him, he had tears coming out of his eyes," she said.
Dr. James Valeriano, vice chairman of neurology at the hospital, said he believes any of McCloy's movements at this point are reflexive. Valeriano said keeping McCloy under sedation allows his brain to rest and assures he doesn't interfere with his own care.
"You put the brain to sleep a little bit so it doesn't have to do as much work. It's a sort of protective thing to do," Valeriano said.
It's unclear why McCloy was the only survivor. The president of the company that owns the mine suggested McCloy may have been deeper in an area where he and 11 others were seeking fresher air.
McCloy's age may also have been a factor, doctors said. And McCloy's father, Randal McCloy Sr., told The Associated Press he believes — though he has no evidence to support it — that his son survived because his older colleagues shared the last of their oxygen with him because he was the youngest, and had two small children at home.
"Those men were like brothers. They took care of each other," he said.
Anna McCloy said she doesn't know if that's true, but she would believe it. "They weren't just pals working together; they were actually family down there," she said.
McCloy was brought to Pittsburgh to undergo treatment in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, which bombards the body with oxygen to battle the carbon monoxide poisoning.
He could not have been moved from West Virginia any sooner because his condition was unstable, doctors said.