Into the Mouth of Madness and Out Again, Alive

A still from video released via the Thai NavySEAL Facebook Page on Wednesday, July 11, 2018, shows rescuers with an evacuated boy at the Tham Luang Nang Non cave, Thailand. (Thai NavySEAL Facebook Page via AP)

In the summer of 2018, 12 members of a Thai junior football team and their coach were successfully rescued from a cave in which they’d become trapped when heavy rains caused sudden flooding. The rescue options ranged from unrealistic to torturous to deadly to mad. At Maclean’s, Shannon Gormley tells the story of the rescue divers who chose “mad” — and succeeded.

Dr. Harry believes the risks of sedating the children beat the risks of not sedating the children. The lead divers believe the same, and the Thais believe the experts know best. The children cannot dive; the children will panic; the children will drown their rescuers and themselves. That is why Dr. Harry is going to do this: inject 12 kids with a sedative so powerful it will knock them out cold.

Ketamine: a horse tranquilizer, an operating-room drug, a soon-to-be cave-rescue pharmaceutical product in its early testing stages on rock-entombed human minors.

If only it were so simple. The children’s drugs will need to be topped up with half-doses along the way. Dr. Harry cannot dive every child out himself, but the divers are not medical doctors. Dr. Harry must give a dozen cave hobbyists and small-business owners a crash course in do-it-yourself anaesthesiology.

If anyone dies—and many divers think they will be lucky to save two or three of the kids—Dr. Harry will bear much of the burden. He is not licensed to practice medicine in Thailand, let alone teach other foreigners to practice. Though Thailand and Australia have offered some assurance that he won’t suffer legal consequences for his young patients’ probable deaths, a conscience and a name are not so easily protected.

Cave divers are solitary creatures, Dr. Harry will later say to the cameras he normally avoids. And as he instructs laymen how to sedate a bunch of boys in the dark before dragging them through a flooded, stalactite-strewn tunnel, Dr. Harry is very alone.

He thinks the drugs might help some children survive. He’s going to try, anyway. That’s the plan. But you never know.

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