When 12 boys and their soccer coach were discovered trapped in the flooded Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand, their parents and the world were shocked and relieved to find them all alive. A contingent of 13 international cave diving experts along with five Thai Navy Seals reached the boys on Sunday, July 8 and rescued four boys.
Rescuers saved four more boys today and then suspended the operation to get rest and refill supplies. As they begin rescuing the remaining boys, medical experts put a huge emphasis on the boys’ health — both mental and physical — and how they should be treated following the traumatic event.
Their oxygen levels were severely compromised
Thai Navy Seal chief Rear Adm. Aphakorn Yoo-kongkaew told CNN on Friday that the oxygen levels in the cave air dipped to 15%. The “optimal range” of oxygen necessary for a person to breathe while maintaining normal function falls between 19.5% and 23.5%.
For the boys still trapped in the cave, dropping oxygen levels prove a serious problem — even if they’re able to breathe. When oxygen levels fall below 19.5%, you face the risk of hypoxia, a condition that causes altitude sickness, as well as headaches, nausea, drowsiness, and weakness.
Over time, hypoxia can cause lung diseases like bronchitis, pneumonia, and pulmonary edema, heart problems, and anemia.
They’re at risk of various infections
Dr. Marc Siegel shared his insight on what the boys will be treated for following their time in the cave. He believes all who make it out of the cave will need to be checked for resulting gastrointestinal infections from the contaminated water and “imperfect personal waste disposal” in the cave.
They were likely exposed to animal waste, such as that from bats, that puts them at risk of histoplasmosis, a fungal lung infection. Exposure may also lead to psittacosis, a bacterial infection that shows itself as a cough, fever, nausea, and fatigue.
The rescued boys show few wounds and wound infection, however, if any present themselves, it could lead to complications. The Wound Care Centers Organization lists a nonhealing wound as the most serious complication, as it can cause a bacterial skin infection or chronic bacterial bone infections. Infectious bacteria from a wound can also spread throughout and wreak havoc on the rest of the body.
Many will experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
One of the most serious issues the 11 to 16-year-old boys and their 25-year-old coach could face is post-traumatic stress (PTSD) from their time in the cave. There were surely moments when the boys thought they would never escape the cave, felt claustrophobic, had panic attacks, and experienced personality changes, Siegel said.
It’s likely the survivors will experience PTSD in the form of flashbacks, consistent behavioral changes, and potential anxiety. If any of them have a history of mental health problems, they’ll likely be more prone to the effects of PTSD. However, Siegel believes that the shared experience of the struggle to survive will unite the boys and create ties deeper than they’ve experienced before. He thinks these ties may help them through their recovery period.
PTSD treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy and medications like anti-depressants and beta blockers.
After at least 15 days underground (the boys still trapped will be there longer) with no sunlight, the boys’ circadian rhythms (“body clocks”) will be off. They may experience difficulty telling the passage of time, sleeping, and issues with light sensitivity. Luckily, all of these effects are reversible.
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