NASA Psychologist Assists Trapped Chilean Miners

The 33 trapped miners in Chile may be rescued sooner than thought. An update now on the mental health of the mikners. Steve Inskeep talks with NASA's Dr. Al Holland about the trauma of prolonged isolation.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Thirty-three miners trapped far below the ground in Chile recently got some good news. They could be rescued by the middle of this month, sooner than expected. One of the people the Chilean government brought in to assist the miners usually works with people far, far above the ground. Albert Holland is a psychologist for NASA who's worked with astronauts in confined spaces like the International Space Station. Some of the lessons he learned there apply underground.

So Holland went to Chile a month ago and accompanied a Chilean psychologist who talked with the miners, first by phone, then by video.

Dr. AL HOLLAND (NASA): You're in this very dusty, rocky area. And you walk into this small wood floor shack, and they pick up a phone and they start speaking with the miners on this open phone. It's quite powerful. The top side is gathered around rescuers, miners, electricians, telecommunications people. And of course, when the psychologist is speaking, it's private.

But prior to his speaking, there was a very moving experience. They were speaking with one of the miners, and he was talking about how they were not going to be giving up and they were there for the long haul. And the people on top side started chanting Chi-Chi-Chi-le-le-le. And the people down in the mine were doing Chi-Chi-Chi-le-le-le - the Chile chant. And people outside the shack began doing it. And it was quite moving.

INSKEEP: And you can see them on the screen.

Dr. HOLLAND: You can now. It's a black-and-white screen. And now the families are visiting with them - video and audio. And that's a big boost for their morale.

INSKEEP: How do they look?

Dr. HOLLAND: They look very good. Initially, of course, they were undernourished. They had barely survived. They were scruffy. They were exhausted. And then as time has gone by they've gotten new clothes. They've gotten shaving equipment, esprit de corps, and there's a lot better look on their faces. And the families feel more comfortable.

INSKEEP: So what have you heard, directly or indirectly, from the miners, and what kinds of advice is valuable in a situation like this?

Dr. HOLLAND: Well, first of all, the miners have done an excellent job of organizing themselves, and did that prior to their discovery 17 days into their ordeal.

There's a leader. And he has assigned a spiritual leader as well. There is a medical person who's the point of contact for all medical issues down there. And they're organized into three shifts. They've organized their geography down within the mine. There's a place for showering. There's a place for eating and recreation. There's a separate place for sleeping, place for smoking.

INSKEEP: How did they choose the people to be the leader and the spiritual leader and so forth?

Dr. HOLLAND: Well, the leader - the shift foreman - remained the leader. And then an older person was assigned the spiritual leader.

INSKEEP: What's the spiritual leader do?

Dr. HOLLAND: Well, they have prayer once or twice a day. So he's a counselor, if you will. He provides guidance and reassurance and knowledge, reflection for the other miners.

INSKEEP: Have they tried to maintain patterns of day and night - lights on, lights off?

Dr. HOLLAND: They have. Specialized circadian lights have been shipped down to the Chileans at their request, which will help and train their circadian rhythms. And also some circadian guidance on how to separate the light and dark and how to manage the groups through those light and dark spaces has been provided.

INSKEEP: Dr. Albert Holland is a psychologist for NASA.

Thanks very much.

Dr. HOLLAND: You bet.

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