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Thai cave rescue: Father of Australian doctor with ingenious idea dies

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From triumph to tragedy: Hero Australian doctor whose ingenious idea paved way for rescue of trapped Thai soccer players loses his father just after successful mission finished

  • Australian doctor Richard Harris played vital role saving trapped soccer players
  • He was asked to assist rescue due to medical expertise and diving experience 
  • Dr Harris was told his father had died moments after mission was accomplished  
  • The 53-year-old, from Adelaide, is being hailed for an ingenious medical idea 

By Max Margan and Kate Darvall For Daily Mail Australia

Published: 19:20 EDT, 10 July 2018 | Updated: 08:18 EDT, 11 July 2018

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An Australian doctor who risked his life to save 12 soccer players trapped in a Thai cave was told his father had died just moments after the daring mission was accomplished. 

Dr Richard 'Harry' Harris, the last person out of the Tham Luang cave system after the triumphant rescue, learned the sad news shortly after he helped the last of the boys to safety on Tuesday.

'It is with great sadness that I confirm Harry's dad passed away last night a short time after the successful rescue operation in Thailand,' said Andrew Pearce, Dr Harris' boss and MedSTAR clinical director.

'This is clearly a time of grief for the Harris family, magnified by the physical and emotional demands of being part of this week's highly complex and ultimately successful rescue operation. 

'He will be coming home soon and taking some well-earned time off to be with his family.'  

Anaesthetist Dr Richard Harris (pictured), who played a vital role in saving 12 soccer players trapped in a Thai cave system, made a surprising first phone call as the daring rescue mission came to a joyous end
Anaesthetist Dr Richard Harris (pictured), who played a vital role in saving 12 soccer players trapped in a Thai cave system, made a surprising first phone call as the daring rescue mission came to a joyous end

Anaesthetist Dr Richard Harris (pictured), who played a vital role in saving 12 soccer players trapped in a Thai cave system, made a surprising first phone call as the daring rescue mission came to a joyous end

All 12 players, pictured from top left clockwise, Adul Sam-on, 14, Panumas Saengdee, 13, Sompong Jaiwong, 13, Ekkarat Wongsookchan, 14, Pipat Bodhi, 15, Peerapat Sompiangjai, 16, Pornchai Kamluang, 16, Prajak Sutham, 14, Chanin Wiboonrungrueng, 11, Mongkol Boonpiam, 14, Nattawut 'Tle' Takamsai, 14 and Duangpetch Promthep, 13
All 12 players, pictured from top left clockwise, Adul Sam-on, 14, Panumas Saengdee, 13, Sompong Jaiwong, 13, Ekkarat Wongsookchan, 14, Pipat Bodhi, 15, Peerapat Sompiangjai, 16, Pornchai Kamluang, 16, Prajak Sutham, 14, Chanin Wiboonrungrueng, 11, Mongkol Boonpiam, 14, Nattawut 'Tle' Takamsai, 14 and Duangpetch Promthep, 13

All 12 players, pictured from top left clockwise, Adul Sam-on, 14, Panumas Saengdee, 13, Sompong Jaiwong, 13, Ekkarat Wongsookchan, 14, Pipat Bodhi, 15, Peerapat Sompiangjai, 16, Pornchai Kamluang, 16, Prajak Sutham, 14, Chanin Wiboonrungrueng, 11, Mongkol Boonpiam, 14, Nattawut 'Tle' Takamsai, 14 and Duangpetch Promthep, 13

Dr Harris was described as 'essential' to the rescue operation because of his unique skills and expertise, including 30 years of cave diving experience and his work as a medical retrieval specialist with South Australia's MedSTAR service.  

Dr Harris was known globally both for his work as a doctor and his ability to retrieve people from difficult places.

'All the team at SA Ambulance Service is incredibly proud of Dr Harris. It has been a tumultuous week with highs and lows,' Dr Pearce said.

'We are delighted that Harry and the boys are safe and that he was able to play such a remarkable role in the Australian response.

'Harry is a quiet and kind man who did not think twice about offering his support on this mission.' 

Dr Pearce said Dr Harris (pictured with wife Fiona) was known globally both for his work as a doctor and his ability to retrieve people from difficult places
Dr Pearce said Dr Harris (pictured with wife Fiona) was known globally both for his work as a doctor and his ability to retrieve people from difficult places

Dr Pearce said Dr Harris (pictured with wife Fiona) was known globally both for his work as a doctor and his ability to retrieve people from difficult places

Dr Pearce described his colleague (pictured) as 'an interesting character' who would not have hesitated for a second in answering the call for his help
Dr Pearce described his colleague (pictured) as 'an interesting character' who would not have hesitated for a second in answering the call for his help

Dr Pearce described his colleague (pictured) as 'an interesting character' who would not have hesitated for a second in answering the call for his help

The 53-year-old anaesthetist, from Adelaide, was hailed for an ingenious medical idea that helped the trapped boys stay calm during the gruelling 1.7km swim to the surface.  

Deep inside the cave system, Dr Harris administered a mild sedative to the boys, ensuring the inexperienced swimmers didn't panic in the water, The Daily Telegraph reported. 

The astonishing story has gripped Thailand and the world since the group was discovered trapped alive by two British cave divers on July 2, nine days after disappearing while exploring the Tham Luang cave system. 

Onlookers in front of Chiangrai Prachanukroh Hospital watch and cheer as ambulances transport the last rescued schoolboys and their coach
Onlookers in front of Chiangrai Prachanukroh Hospital watch and cheer as ambulances transport the last rescued schoolboys and their coach

Onlookers in front of Chiangrai Prachanukroh Hospital watch and cheer as ambulances transport the last rescued schoolboys and their coach

The astonishing story has gripped Thailand and the world since the group was discovered trapped on July 2. Thai rescue team members are pictured at the scene
The astonishing story has gripped Thailand and the world since the group was discovered trapped on July 2. Thai rescue team members are pictured at the scene

The astonishing story has gripped Thailand and the world since the group was discovered trapped on July 2. Thai rescue team members are pictured at the scene

Australia played a vital role in the operation, sending 19 personnel including six military divers and Dr Harris, who on Saturday assessed the boys' health and cleared the way for the dangerous operation to go ahead. 

When Dr Harris joined the Thai rescue crew at the Tham Luang cave system, he convinced officials to change their plans and bring the weakest boys out first, instead of the strongest.

The initial strategy was to extract the strongest boys first because they would have more chance of making it to safety while the others could stay back and build up strength.

Deep inside the cave system, Dr Harris administered a mild sedative to the boys (pictured), ensuring the inexperienced swimmers didn't panic in the wate
Deep inside the cave system, Dr Harris administered a mild sedative to the boys (pictured), ensuring the inexperienced swimmers didn't panic in the wate

Deep inside the cave system, Dr Harris administered a mild sedative to the boys (pictured), ensuring the inexperienced swimmers didn't panic in the water

Australia played a vital role in the operation, sending 19 personnel including six military divers and Dr Harris (pictured)
Australia played a vital role in the operation, sending 19 personnel including six military divers and Dr Harris (pictured)

Australia played a vital role in the operation, sending 19 personnel including six military divers and Dr Harris (pictured)

But that was revised after Dr Harris' health assessment found some of the weaker boys may not survive if they were left behind, according to Thai media. 

The Australians were part of an international rescue team headed by Thai navy SEALs that braved dangerous conditions to extract the final five members of the group from the flooded cave, where they had been trapped for more than two weeks. 

The other eight boys had been extracted from the cave on Sunday and Monday.  

The Thai navy SEALs chant 'Hooyah' rang around the media centre opposite the site when news filtered through around 6.30pm local time on Tuesday that coach Ekapol Chanthawong, 25, was the last to be pulled from the cave. 

Thai rescue team members walk inside a cave where 12 boys and their soccer coach were trapped since June 23
Thai rescue team members walk inside a cave where 12 boys and their soccer coach were trapped since June 23

Thai rescue team members walk inside a cave where 12 boys and their soccer coach were trapped since June 23

An army medic and three Thai Navy SEALs pose for a photograph after the heroic evacuation from the cave
An army medic and three Thai Navy SEALs pose for a photograph after the heroic evacuation from the cave

An army medic and three Thai Navy SEALs pose for a photograph after the heroic evacuation from the cave

The chant also greeted the head of the rescue mission Narongsak Osottanakorn as he entered a press conference three hours later to the glow of local and international media spotlights. 

'We did something no-one else thought was possible,' he said as he thanked the Thai and international rescue team.

He was momentarily interrupted with cries of 'Hooyah! Hooyah!' by jubilant support staff.

'We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the 13 Wild Boars are now out of the cave,' Thai Navy SEALs posted on Facebook, referring to the football team name. 'Everyone is safe.'

THE HERO AUSTRALIAN DIVER: WHO IS DR RICHARD HARRIS?

Dr Harris has 30 years of diving experience and has worked on retrieving bodies from caves
Dr Harris has 30 years of diving experience and has worked on retrieving bodies from caves

Dr Harris has 30 years of diving experience and has worked on retrieving bodies from caves

Dr Harris, 53, is the son of Jim Harris who was a renowned vascular surgeon and senior consultant in Adelaide. 

He has worked six years for MedStar, an aeromedical retrieval service for SA Ambulance.

He has 30 years diving experience and has worked on retrieving bodies from caves.

He famously found the body of stunt diver Agnes Milowka who ran out of air in the Tank Cave near Tantanoola in the south east of South Australia in 2011.

In the past few years, he's been involved in cave-diving explorations in Australia, China, Christmas Island and New Zealand. He has an active interest in diving safety and accident investigation. 

Dr Harris, who has 30 years of diving experience, is also well known in the cave diving community, including as the leader of record-breaking missions to explore a dangerous underwater cave system on New Zealand's South Island.

In 2011 and 2012, he led a team of Aussie divers to record depths of 194 and 221 metres in what's believed to be one of the world's deepest cold water caves, searching for the source of the Pearse River.

He filmed the dangerous and complex mission for National Geographic.

RESCUED SOCCER TEAM MAY FACE MENTAL HEALTH CHALLENGES IN THE COMING WEEKS - EXPERTS SAY 

Thailand's Wild Boars youth football team were inside the Tham Luang cave for 18 days after it flooded

The team of young soccer players rescued from a Thai cave may face greater struggles in overcoming any mental scars from their ordeal compared to their physical ailments, Australian health experts say.

The final four of the 12 boys and their coach were extracted from the flooded Tham Luang cave on Tuesday and taken to hospital to join their teammates for medical tests.

An international rescue team, including Adelaide doctor and underwater cave explorer Richard 'Harry' Harris, helped rescue the weak and malnourished boys and their coach who were trapped for more than two weeks.

While Thai medical experts have described the boys as 'healthy and smiling', two are suspected of having developed lung infections.

Australian experts say most people are resilient and bounce back from physically and mentally stressful events like the one endured by the Wild Boars soccer team.

However some may endure psychological side-effects that will need to be monitored.

University of Melbourne Associate Professor of child trauma and recovery Eva Alisic says the boys may have short-term issues including sleep and concentration problems.

'Other things that could come up is that they think about it all the time, or lose interest in hobbies and become withdrawn,' she told AAP.

'Sometimes people may also avoid things that remind them of what happened and in this case it could be enclosed spaces, but I can't say for these individual children how they will deal with that.'

The international rescue team that extracted the boys and their coach from the cave worked under immense pressure to free them.

The Australian anaesthetist Dr Harris, who risked his life to repeatedly journey into the underground cave, also has the added stress of coping with the death of his father who died soon after the last boys and their coach escaped.

Assoc Prof Eva Alisic said the rescuers could also have trouble coming to grips with the death of 38-year-old Saman Gunan, the Thai Navy SEAL who died in the cave last week.

'Usually emergency professionals are usually very resilient and used to working under high pressure but sometimes things pop up that make it harder to work through and of course losing a colleague in the process is a very stressful and sad experience,' she said.

Associate Professor Allen Cheng, from Monash University's Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, says the boys also face health risks from being malnourished and possible infections.

The boys could be at risk of 're-feeding syndrome', a condition that can set in once people start eating again after their body has gone into starvation mode.

'If you feed these kids up again they can get a lot of physiological imbalances including phosphate levels in their blood falling,' he said.

The boys are also undergoing tests for specific diseases including histoplasmosis, a fungal infection found mainly in caves where bats live.

Narongsak also paid tribute to Lieutenant Smaan Kunan, the ex-navy SEAL diver who died during a mission last week while delivering oxygen in the cave, saying his sacrifice would be remembered. 

As the news spread of the success of the mission did the congratulatory messages from around the globe.

The UK's Manchester United football team extended an invitation for the boys, their coach and their rescuers to visit their Old Trafford home ground.

German footballer Lukas-Podolski said the Wild Boars were his 2018 world champions. 'And not just the boys and their coach, but to all the brave rescuers involved in this incredible mission,' he tweeted.

Thai navy SEALs chant 'Hooyah' rang around the media centre opposite the cave system site
Thai navy SEALs chant 'Hooyah' rang around the media centre opposite the cave system site

Thai navy SEALs chant 'Hooyah' rang around the media centre opposite the cave system site

US President Donald Trump also tweeted his congratulations on the successful multinational rescue effort.

'On behalf of the United States, congratulations to the Thai Navy SEALs and all on the successful rescue of the 12 boys and their coach from the treacherous cave in Thailand. Such a beautiful moment - all freed, great job!'

UK Prime Minister Theresa May tweeted she was 'delighted to see the successful rescue of those trapped in the caves in Thailand. The world was watching and will be saluting the bravery of all those involved.'

Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who visited the site on Monday and also met the boy's families, has promised a celebration dinner for all the rescuers. 

'We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the 13 Wild Boars are now out of the cave,' Thai Navy SEALs posted on Facebook. Joyous onlookers are pictured at the scene
'We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the 13 Wild Boars are now out of the cave,' Thai Navy SEALs posted on Facebook. Joyous onlookers are pictured at the scene

'We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the 13 Wild Boars are now out of the cave,' Thai Navy SEALs posted on Facebook. Joyous onlookers are pictured at the scene

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