Dallas doctor assisted in rescue of Chilean miners

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by JANET ST. JAMES

WFAA

Posted on October 14, 2010 at 5:00 PM

Updated Thursday, Oct 14 at 11:36 PM

DALLAS — A Dallas doctor was called in to help with the rescue of the 33 miners who were pulled up one-by-one in a capsule that took them through 2,000 feet of rock in a dramatic 24-hour rescue operation.

The men had been trapped underground for more than two months. Among the rescue fears was the potential danger of the men standing still with their arms crossed for up to 30 minutes as they were pulled up. It's a position that could be deadly, which is where Dr. Benjamin Levine came into the picture.
  
No one watched the Chilean miners rise from the depths more closely than Levine, a UT Southwestern and Texas Health Dallas doctor who works closely with NASA to set clinical guidelines for astronauts. NASA called him for advice on how to prevent the miners from dying on their way up.

Levine said the biggest concern for the Chilean miners during the 2,000-foot ascent wasn't panic attacks, but passing out.

"If you faint, what happens is you fall to the ground and your brain and heart are on the same level and your heart can pump blood to the brain without any problem," the doctor explained. 

The problem comes when the men can't fall over while standing upright in the capsule.

"Then your blood pressure is very low;  the heart can't pump blood uphill to the brain, and people will die," he said of the danger.

Levine devised a protocol to make sure the miners didn't faint. The men were put on high-sodium, liquid diets and given a special hormone pill to retain salt and water so they had extra blood volume.

Then, Levine and his colleagues made sure that the rescue capsule was built large enough to let the miners cross their legs.

"That is to cross your legs in front of you and then squeeze your thighs and your behind together," he said. "It pushes your blood back up to heart and back up to your brain."

Miners were told to clench and squeeze on the ride up, and they were given this additional instruction:

"Cough very hard; that generates pressure inside the chest and forces blood back to the brain and raises the blood pressure," Levine said. "Even if you have no pulse, you can maintain consciousness by coughing on a regular basis."

The result was a complete success.

This protocol has been submitted for publication, and could set the standard for astronauts and other extreme rescues in the future.

As for what's ahead for the miners, reports indicate they've agreed to share the money they receive for telling their stories equally. The Chilean government is offering them psychiatric counseling and treatment for the next six months.

The twelth miner rescued, Edison Pena, is a big Elvis Presley fan. He has already received a special invitation to visit Elvis' home, Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee.
 
E-mail: jstjames@wfaa.com

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