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Rescued Miners Face Psychological And Other Health Hurdles

The 11th rescued miner is carried on a stretcher

hide captionJorge Galleguillos, the 11th miner rescued from the San Jose mine, is carried away on a stretcher after being trapped underground with 32 other miners.

Hugo Infante/Government of Chile/AP

After enduring 69 days in a small, damp space 2,200 feet below the surface of the earth, the Chilean miners are reportedly in remarkably good shape.

Chilean Health Minister Jaime Manalich has been updating reporters regularly on their status, and early this afternoon he noted that the miners who've made the journey to the surface so far are showing elevated heart rates, but otherwise are doing "quite well."

After a quick reunion with friends and families, the miners go by stretcher to a regional hospital for tests and visits with dermatologists and ophthalmologists. The miners are likely to have picked a number of minor conditions during the confinement, but the most serious may be the psychological effects of their ordeal.

Shots spoke to Dr. Alan Langlieb, an expert in disaster psychiatry and public health affiliated with Johns Hopkins. He says it's hard to know how resilient – and capable of bouncing back from the trauma – the miners will be.

"But in general some proper counseling, maybe with the group, and the chance for them to vocalize what they experienced will all help with this bounce-back and resilience," says Langlieb. "Most people will do very well."

NASA has been helping Chilean officials, doctors, and psychologists in their preparation for the miners' return, using experience gleaned from astronauts and their and their families' struggles with confinement and isolation.

Dr. Albert Holland, a NASA psychologist who traveled to Chile last month, told All Things Considered's Melissa Block today that the miners may feel lasting repercussions. "I'm sure the physicians down there are looking for any signs of anxiety reactions or depression or even PTSD," Holland said.

In a Live Q&A this morning on the Washington Post's website, Dr. Michael Duncan, chief medical officer and leader of the NASA team that went to Chile, described the ways the miners may rely on each other as they recuperate.

"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," Duncan noted. "So they still have that cohesive bond of this experience."

Other lingering health issues the miners may face include:

Eyes: After more than two months without natural light, their eyes may have lost the ability to adapt to it. Their corneas may be especially sensitive to ultra-violet light, which is why the miners are wearing $260 sunglasses donated by Oakley as they emerge from underground. Ophthalmologists treating the miners will likely expose them slowly to natural light over the next few days.

Sleep: The absence of natural light may have affected the miners' biological clocks and sleep cycles, according to biologist Samer Hattar at Johns Hopkins University. "The miners need to be sure to expose themselves to natural light at the correct time of day — daytime — to readjust their clocks and receive the necessary photons to enhance their moods," Hattar advises.

Circulation: Doctors sent special all-liquid food packed with minerals and protein to prevent nausea and stabilize blood pressure for their journey up. In the half-mile ascension, the miners will feel a significant change in pressure that could impact their circulatory systems. The Associated Press reported the miners took low doses of aspirin and are wearing compression socks to fight blood clots that could form.

Lungs: The miners have been breathing humid, stagnant air for two months. The air inside the mine is filled with mineral particles and could also contain mold. The exposure to could leave the miners with lasting respiratory trouble.

Skin: The humidity and the high underground temperature could cause skin conditions and infections.

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