Traumatized Chile miners face more "anguish"-doctor

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Friday, 15 October 2010 07:09 GMT

* Nurse&${esc.hash}39;s soothing voice helped stabilize them emotionally

* Concern about miners&${esc.hash}39; emotional health after initial joy

By Terry Wade

COPIAPO, Chile, Oct 15 (Reuters) - The 33 Chilean miners rescued after two months trapped in what could have become their underground tomb now face a challenging recovery from emotional trauma that could take weeks or months to unfold.

"Various miners are in a very delicate state from a psychological standpoint," said Health Minister Jaime Manalich. "They will have nightmares and feel anguish. They are going to have a very difficult time adapting to a normal life."

The miners said despair began to set during the first 17 days following the cave-in at the San Jose mine in northern Chile&${esc.hash}39;s remote Atacama Desert -- a time when they could not be certain a search was even being mounted.

Their spirits rose when they heard drills approaching their dark, dank refuge -- only to suffer an emotional crash when they realized at least one drill had missed them by just yards.

Once search teams made contact with the men through a narrow bore hole, they were able to communicate with psychologists by way of video conference while still underground. This small shaft became their lifeline for physical and mental sustenance.

But the accounts from the miners&${esc.hash}39; darkest days are just starting to emerge.

"There should be concern about their psychological adjustment over time, particularly after the joy of the reunion period," said John Fairbank, a psychiatry professor at the Duke University Medical Center.

After 69 days fearing that the walls of their cavern prison might give way, the men were carried to the surface in a capsule hoisted through a painstakingly-drilled escape shaft. They were physically healthy, for the most part, and were expected to be released soon from the hospital where they have been cared for since Wednesday.

Some of the miners are expected to receive book or movie deals to recount the story of one of the world&${esc.hash}39;s most impressive search and rescue operations -- which required unprecedented engineering feats to fetch the miners from more than 200 stories below ground.

If a movie is made, an actress will be needed to play the health care worker whom the miners credited for keeping them mentally stable. They said the soothing voice of nurse Marcela Zuniga calmed them over a makeshift telephone for weeks on end.

"For the three weeks I was the only woman to talk with the miners, and it surprised me when they told psychologists they dreamed about my voice at night," Zuniga, a middle-aged woman with shoulder-length black hair and silver eye shadow, said.

"We gained their trust by sending down things they asked for, even if it was a nail clipper," she added. "There was a big discussion about whether we should give them cigarettes. Ultimately, we did. We rationed them to 11 a day so they wouldn&${esc.hash}39;t smoke too much."

But the ground team refused to send chocolates to the trapped men in a bid to keep their weight down so they could fit into the narrow capsule that would lift them to safety. (Reporting by Terry Wade, writing by Hugh Bronstein, editing by Jackie Frank)

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