Cave rescue sequel (1)
It’s been almost five months since that dramatic rescue of 12 young football players, aged 11 to 16, and their team’s assistant coach from Tham Luang cave in the province of Chiang Rai, Thailand.
The rescue extended over 18 days, a race against time because oxygen levels were dropping in the cave while toxic carbon dioxide was increasing. There were also fears that strong rains could easily fill the cave with water and drown the team.
The rescue efforts involved thousands of Thais, assisted by volunteers from several countries — 13 nations to rescue the 13 “Wild Boars,” which was the name of the team. One former Thai Navy SEAL, Saman Kunan, died from oxygen deprivation during the rescue. An Australian physician, Richard Harris, played a major role in the final rescue efforts, and kept on despite his father’s death shortly before the rescue was successfully completed.
Much credit for the boys’ survival was given to Ekapol Chanthawong, the assistant coach, whose strong sense of self-sacrifice endeared himself to the Thais, who referred to him as “Coach Ake.” Stories emerged after the rescue about how he had scrimped on his own food so the boys could eat. He taught the boys how to huddle together to avoid hypothermia inside the cold cave.
For Buddhist Thailand, most intriguing was how Coach Ake taught the boys how to meditate, which became a valuable survival skill to overcome the stress from the physical conditions — they were limited to a ledge inside the cave and had run out of food, while they had to rely on trickles of water that came in from within the cave. When the final rescue efforts began, Coach Ake chose to be left behind, not leaving until all the boys had reached safety.
The final rescue took several days to plan and involved expert divers going in to bring out the boys, two at a time, on a perilous 2.4-kilometer journey through narrow tunnels and a deep pool with zero visibility. Two divers were assigned to each boy.
The world followed the rescue efforts with great anxiety and, as the boys were brought out, with elation. I would check the internet every few hours, and felt like an expectant parent in a maternity ward, even learning “hooyah” (a military version of “hurrah” that became popular in Thailand) when the news reported on the “delivery” of another boy to safety.
Xu Haoliang of the UN Development Programme eventually wrote an article observing that the Thai crisis showed how people from different nations can work together with a sense of shared humanity.
I couldn’t agree more. During that crisis, I wrote two columns about the rescue because I felt we had a lot to learn about that shared humanity and how we need to work harder to use our untapped reservoirs of compassion.
We love it when movies based on true stories have a sequel at the end, telling us what happened to the main characters. I did wonder about what happened to the team, getting only occasional news after the rescue. I read about the boys attending special Buddhist ceremonies to honor Saman Kunan. There were also news reports about Coach Ake and three of the boys, who were stateless refugees from bordering Laos and Myanmar, being given Thai citizenship.
Late in October, I smiled when I read about the boys being flown to England to meet the Manchester United team and other football heroes.
That was about it.
So I was thrilled when, at an international meeting, I found myself seated next to professor Chayaporn Wattanasiri, vice president of Mae Fah Luang University (MFLU) in Chiang Rai province. As soon as she gave me her calling card, the Thai cave rescue came to my mind, and I just had to ask her how the team was faring.
Her face lit up and, together with another MFLU faculty, Romyen Kosaikanont, she shared several updates, starting with how extra effort had been taken to get the team members back to a normal life, away from the limelight. That was a wise move, given how celebrity status can actually cause psychosocial problems for people, especially the young, who become “addicted” to all the attention for a prolonged period, and then find themselves having difficulty adjusting back to being an ordinary person.
The coach has become a Buddhist monk, which he had been earlier in his life and which had given him the meditation skills that became so useful for the team. (In Buddhism, monkhood is not necessarily a lifetime vocation. You can enter the monastic life for varying periods, several times in a lifetime.)
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