Australian Doctor Dropped Holiday to Join Thai Cave Rescue, Lauded for Contribution

By Mimi Nguyen-ly

An Australian doctor has been roundly applauded for his contribution to the Thailand cave rescue mission.

Richard Harris, an anaesthetist and experienced cave diver, was meant to be holidaying in South Australia. But he abandoned those plans to volunteer in the complex rescue operation.

He has since received widespread praise on social media, with many calling for him to be named Australian of the Year—the nation’s highest civic honour.

Twelve boys aged between 11 and 16 from the “Wild Boars” soccer team and their 25-year-old coach were trapped while exploring the Tham Luang Cave in Chiang Rai on June 23. They had been missing for a week before they were located.

Thai authorities called Harris for help on July 5 when experts divers from the UK, who were leading the mission, said he was the best person for the job, given his medical skills and 30 years’ worth of diving experience, according to the ABC.

Harris medically assessed each of the boys and their coach. He decided who of the group needed be led out the quickest while who could wait longer.

He also stayed with the group for three days, and was reportedly the last out of the cave when all 13 were finally evacuated on July 10.

The Australian Federal (AFP) police said the scale and risk of the operation was “unprecedented”, the ABC reported. On July 6, Saman Gunan, a 38-year-old former Navy SEAL diver who took part in the rescue efforts, died from lack of oxygen after an operation to deliver air tanks along the escape route.

A team of 20 Australians were involved in the rescue, including Harris’s West Australian dive partner, veterinarian Dr Craig Challen, and divers from the AFP and Navy, said the ABC. A total of 90 divers were involved in the Thai-led rescue, according to Thai authorities.

Father’s Death

Good news of the rescue was met with sudden notice that Harris’s father died soon after the rescue’s completion, on the morning of July 11.

His boss Dr Andrew Pearce said Harris was grieving for his father.

“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,” Dr Pearce told the ABC.

The Thai Navy SEALs issued a statement on July 11 thanking the South Australian for his incredible efforts.

“Our condolences to Doctor Richard Harris, one of the leading rescuers whose father just passed away hours after his rescue mission had been completed,” the statement read, Yahoo 7 News reported.

“We wish you the best for this very tough time. We never thank you enough for what you’ve done for the kids, their families and Thailand.

“Thank you, Richard and thank you, Australia!”

First Official Statement

In a statement, Harris and diving partner Challen wrote: “We would like to thank everyone for the messages of support we have received following the successful extraction of the team and Royal Thai Navy Seals from the cave.

“The favourable outcome that has been achieved is almost beyond our imagination when we first became involved.

“We are humbled to have been able to provide our expertise and experience to assist in this international operation.”

Harris praised the children and the Thai Navy SEAL divers during a FaceTime call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

“The big heroes in this are the children and the four Thai Navy seals who were looking after them. They are the toughest blokes and kids I’ve ever had the privilege to meet,” Harris said.

“They are the ones who were responsible for their own morale and really their own safety and without them being in the state they were in we couldn’t have done anything.”

The boys, some wrapped in emergency blankets, appear to be in good spirits despite their ordeal. (Thai Navy Seal/Handout via Reuters TV)
The boys, some wrapped in emergency blankets, appear to be in good spirits despite their ordeal. (Thai Navy Seal/Handout via Reuters TV)

The children and their coach, along with Thai Navy SEALs involved in their rescue, are still in quarantine, the ABC reported.

Most of the boys rescued were generally in good condition and showing no signs of stress, a senior health official told Reuters on July 11. They had lost an average of 4 pounds (2 kilograms) during the 17-day ordeal.

‘The Perfect Person to Support Them’

Australian Medical Association President Dr Tony Bartone said Harris risked his safety to help others and should be commended, said the ABC.

“Dr Harris’s efforts here are nothing short of absolutely exceptional and beyond and above the call of duty, but that’s typical of many of the doctors that make up the medical profession in Australia,” he said.

Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop said all the Australians involved would be receiving formal recognition for their efforts.

“[Dr Harris] was an integral part of the rescue attempt,” Bishop told the ABC. “He is internationally renowned for his expertise in cave rescues.”

On July 11, leader of the rescue mission, acting Chiang Rai governor Narongsak  Osotanakorn, praised the doctor and the Australian team.

“[The Australians] have been a big help, especially the doctor,”Osotanakorn told Nine News.

“Very good. The best – not good – the very best.”

Harris is an experienced diver and an underwater photographer, and has undertaken cave-diving expeditions in Australia, New Zealand, Christmas Island and China.

Bishop said the doctor is also known for his work on medical assistance teams in natural disasters in the Pacific region, and has taken part in Australian aid missions in Vanuatu, reported the BBC.

A friend of Harris, Sue Crowe, told the BBC that he was an unassuming and selfless family man.

“He is brilliant with children, and he would have made sure that they were prepared in the best possible way from a cave-diving perspective,” she said.

“He would have been the perfect person to support them.”

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