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Medical Update on Nine Pennsylvania Miners

Aired July 29, 2002 - 09:01   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: "Up Front" this morning, three miners are still hospitalized, as we mentioned, after yesterday's early morning miracle rescue of nine miners in Somerset, Pennsylvania. Trapped for more than three days, the men were finally pulled to the surface alive. Now six of the nine are already back at home with their families.

Let's go back to Bill Hemmer who is standing by at that site in Somerset for the very latest on how those families are faring and what it is they exactly went through.

Good morning -- Bill.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, Paula, good morning once again.

Three still remain hospitalized as of daybreak earlier today. We're only a matter of moments away, Paula, from a hospital briefing with the doctors helping to treat those three men. When that starts, we'll bring it to you.

But in the meantime, let's bring in Dr. Richard Kunkle. He was one of the doctors on hand on Saturday and into the early morning hours here on Sunday. He's with us live now here in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Good morning to you.


HEMMER: We have talked -- very well, thank you very much. It's nice to report a good story, to be quite honest with you.

KUNKLE: That's right.

HEMMER: We have talked about, for the past five days, about how tough these guys are. You make the point that they're smart, too. What did they do at 240 feet subterranean that lent themselves to surviving this?

KUNKLE: Well that's what people don't give them credit for. A lot of this rescue and the fact that we have nine live individuals from it is really a credit to the men. A lot of times people don't realize how smart you have to be to be a miner and how difficult it is to work in an environment that's actually a different universe underground, all the things that you have to deal with it.

These guys when the inundation started realized what was happened right away. And as a result of that, they got themselves together and they found the highest ground, because that's where the water was going to go last if it went. And when it went, the ground and the mine was constructed in such a way that the water sealed an air bubble. And as the water rose, the air bubble got -- kept getting higher and the air pressure on top of the men kept getting higher. And that's why we had to worry about the decompression illness.

But they got themselves into the corner as far away from the water as they could. And they realized and they're knowledgeable that cold is a -- is their enemy. Being wet is their enemy.

HEMMER: Yes, that's right.

KUNKLE: Having a bad atmosphere, not enough oxygen is their enemy. And so they huddled together to keep themselves warm. Set back to back, side by side to conserve body heat. They conserved their caplamps, because I mean it is absolutely dark underground. There is no question about that. And so they had only the caplamps that they had, nine caplamps. And they conserved them by each one using a caplamp for a small amount of time so that they would have light.

HEMMER: They made some -- they made some really good decisions, didn't they?

KUNKLE: They made enormously...


KUNKLE: ... smart decisions.

HEMMER: Let me ask you this, doctor, when you treated them, were you surprised or how surprised were you about the condition physically when they came out of the ground?

KUNKLE: It was amazing. These men were in excellent condition. They had a little bit of immersion injury on their feet from being in the water. That will resolve. There's almost never residual effects of that. There can be some, but almost never anything significant injury. Nobody had any significant trauma.

One gentleman had chest pains, and we were very concerned it was coronary in origin. And he was treated appropriately and transferred to Conemaugh to the trauma center. One gentleman had shoulder pain, and I understand that it is actually that gentleman who we ultimately treated with the compression chamber.

HEMMER: Doctor, I'm going to cut you off here because we may learn more right now at the hospital up the road in Johnstown.

KUNKLE: Very good, thank you.

DR. RUSSELL DUMIRE, TRAUMA SURGEON: ... back home with their family and get on with their lives.

If you have any questions, I'd be glad to answer them.

QUESTION: Dr. Dumire, what kind of tests did you run (INAUDIBLE)?

DUMIRE: Again, because this is the same patient with the irregular heart rate, still further cardiac evaluation needs to be done and a couple other tests for symptoms that he had had for a while that have been markedly worsened with the incident. We're going to work up as an inpatient to more expediently while he's here.


DUMIRE: He's just having some GI symptoms, which are inhibiting his ability to take as much of a diet as we'd like him to take at this time.

QUESTION: So he's not being able to...

DUMIRE: He can't eat.

QUESTION: Doctor, would you talk a little bit about how they spent their nights? The first night they were out of the mine but (UNINTELLIGIBLE) hospital together? sedate them?

DUMIRE: No. None of the -- none of the miners required sedation. These guys are exceptionally strong and resilient individuals. I think the first night, with the excitement and the reuniting them with their family, they didn't get much rest. Yesterday and last night they all rested very well. As a matter of fact, for me to see them this morning, I felt bad, but I had to wake them up from their sleeps to see them. But they're all -- they're all resting well at this point and adjusting well I think.

QUESTION: How long do you think before he'll be able to digest (INAUDIBLE)?

DUMIRE: Oh I think he can digest just fine. He just doesn't have much of an appetite and has trouble swallowing the food. And it's not due to the fact that it's hospital food, it's all food. It's -- depending on what we find with the studies, I'll be able or he may be able to answer that for you. I can't tell you that right now.

QUESTION: Is this a preexisting condition?

DUMIRE: I think he was having symptoms for a long time prior to this, but with the stress and everything from the incident, it's just exacerbated the symptoms. And now, you know, he's in a medical facility where we can address these symptoms and figure out what's going on for him.

QUESTION: What exactly is the name of the problem that he may have?

DUMIRE: I think he's just got bad esophageal reflux, gastritis and esophagitis and it's just bad heartburn that's been persistent for a long time and it's made worse by this incident.

QUESTION: Heart problems (ph) still seem to be responding to medication as you thought it would?

DUMIRE: Actually, his heart problem has responded well to medications. We've got him off the medications that we needed to convert his heart rate and slow it back down to a normal level and we've got him on some routine maintenance medications and they're doing just fine right now.

QUESTION: Is the heart rate normal now?

DUMIRE: It's completely normal. He's -- if you were to talk to him, he would look completely normal, at this point, and he doesn't have any of those exertional feelings or anxiety feelings from a racing heart anymore.

QUESTION: Doctor, when are you going to let (ph) the meals they have eaten?

DUMIRE: The meals -- the meals here are individual. They can order pretty much anything they want. The only one that I've talked to ordered some pork and potatoes the other night. I haven't asked them what they're eating, just that they are eating. I can't remember.

QUESTION: Are they -- are they speaking with one another frequently?

DUMIRE: Yes, they are. The first day that we rounded, we actually found three of them in the room together talking. We had to basically do group rounds on them because they were all still together.

QUESTION: Dr. Dumire, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) I apologize for (ph) early reporters if it actually has been asked already, but when you actually found out that you were going to get live patients after having seen this ordeal for three days, how did it feel?

DUMIRE: It felt very good. I mean we were all very optimistic that they were going to come out of this alive. But we were also very concerned with the amount of time that they had spent in the -- in the cold, immersed condition. We were fearing the worst at the time. And when they got here in the condition that they were in, we were exceptionally pleased. And I mean it just couldn't have been any better.

QUESTION: How (UNINTELLIGIBLE) have they been then as far as (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

DUMIRE: I mean it's just a testament to their resolve and their inner strength. I mean these people had the inner will to go on, and I think that's what pulled them through. And you know it's the work of everybody. It's -- you know they did their part the best they could. They kept their cool. They kept each other warm. The people on topside knew the problems they were facing. They quickly sunk that 6-inch pipe to give them clean, fresh air and warm air to keep them from going into severe hypothermia.

The people who transported them here, they did everything they could to make sure they stayed warm during the transport and got them to us in the best possible condition.

And everybody here in the hospital, I mean I'm up here standing here talking to you all, but you know, I'm just one person. I mean it's the whole system here. The paramedics, the respiratory therapists, the laboratory, everybody was just here giving 110 percent. And they -- we had 8 or 10 minutes in between the arrival of the patients initially, and we were literally had the rooms cleaned. The housekeeping people had everything cleaned and we were ready for the next patient eight minutes after the patients got here. So things just could not have gone better, and it was a group effort from everybody in the hospital.

QUESTION: Doctor, are the patients' families staying with them overnight?

DUMIRE: The -- we have allowed the families to stay with them. And I don't think that they would have left even if we didn't allow them to stay with them. So they have had beds in the room. The families have been there. But the families have been remarkably understanding as well. When we have had to do things, even the -- even the miners themselves, when we had to do tests, you know they said I really want to be with my family but, Doc, you do what we need to do, let's get this taken care of and then let's get on with things.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) have they been to visit the three remaining in the hospital?

DUMIRE: Not that I -- not that I know of. Now I'm not on the floor all the time. They may have had visitors from some of the miners; I don't know the answer to that. I know the ones that have -- are in the hospital have been visiting each other.

QUESTION: Doctor, can you give us an update patient by patient of how each man is doing?

DUMIRE: I can tell you that all three of them are in good condition. I can't give you specifics on their conditions right now. I mean a couple of them who actually have the more serious problems will be talking later today and they can -- they can give you all of the individual information. I mean I don't want to invade their privacy. They're in the limelight now and these are -- these are humble people. I mean they really just want to set back, they -- most of them didn't even want to talk to the press. They just wanted to go home with their families and resume their lives. So I don't want to violate their privacy.

QUESTION: Doctor, are you still not (UNINTELLIGIBLE) any long- term (UNINTELLIGIBLE) complications (UNINTELLIGIBLE)? DUMIRE: I do not predict any long-term complications from the acute injuries that they sustained. We still are very worried about things, long-term psychological implications, not just for the patients, but their families as well. Things like posttraumatic stress disorder. All of them are being counseled on that prior to discharge and the availability of psychological counseling. Social services are being made available to them.

And it's just important for the families. You know I can't imagine what the wife of the trapped miner's going to feel the first time he leaves to go back to work to the situation that almost took them or separated them here a few days ago.

And you know the rescue workers in this case are not going to need much counseling because it was a tremendous outcome. But had it been worse, the rescue workers themselves would have needed probably some of the psychological counseling for the failure of the rescue attempts. But thank God that wasn't the case in this -- in this instance.

QUESTION: You had mentioned that they are such remarkable resilient men. In your caring for them, have they done or said anything in particular that really stands out in your memory?

DUMIRE: You know it's -- just in general, I mean trauma patients in general sometimes are difficult to deal with because of the situations surrounding the trauma. I mean it's an acute change in their lifestyle that may alter their life for the rest of their lives. And these guys, they knew the risk when they went into the mine, I think, and they knew exactly what to do when the -- when the water came rushing in. They kept their cool and they saved themselves, basically, and they're aware of that.

And it's just been a pleasure dealing with them. I mean when things have had to be done, the one gentlemen who went into the decompression chamber yesterday said you know I just didn't feel like going in but I knew it had to be done so let's just get it taken care of. I mean that's -- their -- been their attitude the whole time. You know there has been no complaining, there's been -- there's been nothing. It's just been let's do it, let's get it done and thanks for the help and...

QUESTION: And how do you think that attitude will help them get over the psychological stress?

DUMIRE: I think it can't hurt them. I think it will benefit them markedly. And also I think because they were not trapped as individuals, but they were trapped as a group, will be a significant psychological advantage to the whole group and the families of the group as well. But still, it's something that we're concerned about. We need to keep track of this. And we'll only know, you know, in weeks to months from now in terms of whether or not any of these are -- any of them are going to experience any of these symptoms.

QUESTION: Dr. Dumire, for you, is there going to be one defining or poignant moment when you look back at this, caring for the nine miners, that you're going to forever keep with you?

DUMIRE: I don't think I'll ever forget this. I think the thing that sticks in my mind the most is before they brought them out, you said they said they were within 14 feet of getting down to them. At that point I was thinking the worst. I'm thinking 70 hours in 55- degree air temperature, 50-degree water, I mean that's physiologically almost impossible to survive by anybody. And then to see these guys who had to crawl into that cage by themselves, shut that huge steel door, come up 250 feet and then come out on their own power, that to me is just a testament to pure human will.

I mean as -- you know as physicians, we can put things back together and we can rearrange things the way that they were supposed to be, but we can't heal the patients. That comes from inside, and these guys have the will to live and it didn't -- they made our job extremely easy. I mean they did the work. We just, you know, made the environment right for them.

ZAHN: You've been listening to Dr. Russell Dumire who was treating the three minors who remain hospitalized at this hour after that miraculous rescue over the weekend. He's from Conemaugh Medical Memorial Center, describing some of what still is challenging one of the miners and that is the inability to eat. He made a joke saying it wasn't because of the quality of the hospital food but that one of the miners has no appetite and it's very hard for him to swallow.

He was making a comparison to other trauma patients he's treated along the way saying that these guys have been unbelievably positive, that they knew the risks when they went into the mine, they knew what to do and he said they saved themselves. And apparently they all rested well. And according to the doctor, adjusting well to their life now above ground after that harrowing three days and what amounted to be a cold, dark, tank full of water that was up to their chins at one point. So I would -- there's an expectation these men will be released from the hospital soon. And we'll keep you posted on that.

And by the way, just a programming note, later this afternoon at 1:00 p.m. from the medical center, two of the miners will be joining a news conference live to talk about their experiences during that three-day period.

We're going to move on to the rest of the headlines now. Daryn Kagan is standing by at our headquarters in Atlanta.

And, Daryn,...


ZAHN: ... you'll probably be on duty when we're covering that live -- good morning.

KAGAN: Good morning.

Yes, I was just remarking on that news conference. You can tell the smiles and the relief is returning to Somerset County. The doctor having the sense of humor when he was talking about the patient who wouldn't eat and he got in the remark and it's not because it's hospital food.

ZAHN: Right, I love that.

KAGAN: By the way, he really -- he can't eat.

We're looking -- definitely looking forward to that news conference, Paula. Thank you very much.




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