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Traumatic effects of Chile miners' ordeal in evidence

Even as most of the 33 men rescued after being trapped 69 days were released from hospital, the health minister said some were showing signs of disorientation. And a Mass of thanksgiving is cancelled.

October 16, 2010|By Chris Kraul and Fabiola Gutierrez, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Copiapo, Chile, and Santiago, Chile — Signs of emotional and psychological trauma began to emerge Friday in some of the 33 miners rescued this week in Chile after 69 days trapped underground, even as the bulk of the men were released from a regional hospital in Copiapo.

Health Minister Jaime Manalich said some of the men rescued Oct. 13 from the San Jose mine were showing signs of disorientation as they struggled to become reacquainted with life aboveground.

Officials canceled a Mass of thanksgiving that was to have been celebrated at the San Jose mine Sunday by the miners and their families, citing the psychological fragility of some of the miners. Atacama state Gov. Ximena Matas said the men were not mentally prepared to confront the scene of their anguish and wanted "a moment of tranquility."

"It's not a good idea that they go back to the mine so soon," said psychologist Alberto Iturra, who was part of the medical rescue team that counseled the miners during their ordeal.

"Ideally, they need a period of rest because they are still on emotional roller coasters," Manalich said. "They still have to process what they went through, to let their experiences settle, have their nightmares and let out their anxieties."

However, the glare of media attention focused on the men seems certain to make that process more difficult. The miners have been inundated with job offers, gifts, and invitations from celebrities and presidents around the globe offering trips to glamour spots and major events.

Yet coping with even small celebrations after months in the dank and dark have proved a challenge.

"I didn't think I'd make it back, so this reception blows my mind," Edison Pena, one of the first three miners to be released from the hospital, told reporters as waiting neighbors showered him with confetti on his return home. "We really had a bad time."

The miners still appear reluctant to share details of their nightmare, in part because they apparently have agreed to share their story collectively in order to equally distribute any financial gain.

When asked if some of the men were experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome, Manalich answered by saying that a group of Australian miners stuck underground for 10 days experienced psychological problems, so it would be reasonable to expect that the miners saved this week might go through an "extraordinarily difficult time."

Reports suggested most of the group had been sent home Friday, though Manalich said some would be transferred to a clinic in the capital, Santiago. He did not specify the medical cause for the transfers.

One miner is known to be suffering from pneumonia complicated by silicosis, another from complications from diabetes.

Although the miners received psychological counseling during their entrapment, and received glowing evaluations at the time, that effort was directed at the anxiety they felt being underground. They were also coached on dealing with the media and the "ugly and indiscrete questions" that reporters might ask them once they were free, officials have said.

Some of the men emerged "exhausted, and when one is exhausted, the sensitivities rise to a maximum and tolerances fall to a minimum," Iturra said, adding that fielding questions from the hundreds of journalists in Copiapo might be an ordeal that the men are not prepared for.

"These are miners, not movie stars," Iturra said.

Special correspondents Kraul and Gutierrez reported from Copiapo and Santiago, respectively.

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