Ketamine is primarily used as a horse tranquilizer, but also has human medical applications, and was used during the rescue as a relatively simple way to anesthetize the teens as professional divers guided them out of tight cave paths one by one, the New England Journal of Medicine reported Thursday.
The 12 soccer players and their coach were stuck in the Thuam Lung cave complex in northern Thailand after it flooded during a monsoon, blocking the only exit.
Trapped for 17 days without food or water, they group were at risk if running out of oxygen, or drowning in rising flood waters.
Narrow passageways with strong currents made it so hard for rescuers to reach the boys that a retired Thai Navy Seal died while making the crossing. It was important that the boys, none of whom knew how to dive, remained calm throughout the carefully planned rescue operation.
The divers administered the boys with “unspecified doses of ketamine” and gave them positive pressure full face masks, the medical report said.
According to the World Health Organization, ketamine can be a safer option than other anesthetics because it does not depress breathing or lower blood pressure. It also does not require expensive equipment to monitor the patient, so it is often used in areas with unreliable access to running water, electricity, and oxygen.
Dr. Richard Harris, an Australian anesthetist who contributed to the report, told the Daily Mail he had to teach rescuers when to re-sedate the boys. The timing was crucial: If they received too little, they could panic. If they were rendered unconscious, they might not have been able to respond to an emergency.
“The fact that our rescue strategy worked, and not just once but 13 times, still seems beyond the realms of possibility and I’m pinching myself that this has been the outcome,” Dr. Harris said.