Following the extraordinary events of the Thai cave rescue that took place over 19 tumultuous days in July 2018, we were delighted to have been able to speak with Dr Richard Harris, one of the ‘heroes’ of the rescue mission, and invite him to talk via live-link from his home in Adelaide, Australia about his one-of-a-kind experience at our 2018 World Extreme Medicine Conference .
Doctor Richard Harris, a 53-year-old anaesthetist and underwater cave explorer was deployed as part of a small AUSMAT team (Australian Medical Assistance Teams) to the rescue in Chang Rai in Northern Thailand after being specially requested by British Divers for his expertise to help navigate the cave system, said to be among the dangerous in the world. Known globally for his work, Dr Richard Harris was ‘essential’ to the rescue operation due to his unique skills and expertise, including 30 years of cave diving and his work as a medical retrieval specialist. He is one of the most sought-after professionals in the field and proved to be the perfect choice for inclusion in one the most arduous and extreme rescue missions in recent times.
Dr Andrew Pearce, Harris’ boss at South Australian Ambulance’s aeromedical retrieval service MedStar said at the time of the rescue:
“In this small fraternity of people, when you get asked for by name you’re known worldwide for your skills. He’s using those skills at the moment, not only as a doctor but the added benefit that he happens to have this amazing ability to do what no-one else does in diving into very dark, tight spaces with not a lot of equipment.”
Supposedly on holiday at the time the news of the rescue mission hit headlines across the world, Richard cut short his break to travel to Chiang Rai and make the treacherous journey into the caves along with a team of experts; scuba diving 4km through cold, dark and narrow passages to reach the boys and set up triage. It was here over the course of 3 days that Richard went in and out of the Tham Luang caves surfacing only after each day’s rescue attempt had finished, personally assessing whether the boys trapped underground were fit enough to make the perilous journey to safety – one of the most difficult of responsibilities to uphold, especially with the eyes of the world watching your every move.
It was during these initial health assessments, that Dr Harris convinced officials to change their rescue plan and bring the weakest boys out first, instead of the strongest, as he feared the weaker boys may not survive if they were left behind. Once the change of strategy had been approved and everything set up and in place, he gave final approval, clearing the way to make the incredibly dangerous journey out of the flooded cave complex. Dr Richard Harris was the last person to leave the treacherous tunnel network in Chiang Rai after the 12 boys and their football coach had been saved.
Now recounting the true extent of his experience, Dr Harris said:
“I have never seen anything like it with man battling to control the natural forces of the monsoon waters. It had been a pretty amazing experience for us all last week being involved with this rescue. Some moments of significant fear I have to say and then a great result and some really joyous moments to finish making some true friends and colleagues.”
Richard later paid tribute to the whole rescue team and his colleagues in a Facebook post when he was on his way back to Australia sitting in the back of a RAAF C17; the first chance he’d had to stop and reflect on the events of the past 8 days.
Mark Hannaford Founder and World Extreme Medicine Conference Director added:
“We are absolutely honoured Dr Richard Harris is able to find time in his busy schedule and share his unique experience with us at our World Extreme Medicine Conference in Edinburgh. Like the rest of the world, we followed this rescue mission with baited breath, so for the delegates at #WEM18 to hear first-hand his account of events will be fascinating. It’s these challenging and austere situations that bring to the forefront the marvels of medical innovation and just how extreme pre-hospital care can be. We can’t wait for Richard to join us!”
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