Story of Survival: How the Thai soccer team stayed alive in the cave

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU/AP) -- "Everyone is safe." With those three words posted on Facebook the daring rescue mission to extricate 12 boys and their soccer coach from the treacherous confines of a flooded cave in Thailand came to a close on Tuesday — a grueling 18-day ordeal that claimed the life of an experienced diver and riveted people worldwide.

Thailand's Navy SEALs, who were central to the rescue effort, celebrated the feat with a post that read: "All the thirteen Wild Boars are now out of the cave," — a reference to the boys' soccer team. "We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what."

How were the boys able to survive? WEAU Health Correspondent Dr. Alicia Arnold sat down with Tyler Mickelson to explain how the body handles malnourishment for so long. Their Q&A can be found below.

First, from a medical standpoint, how many days can a body last with no food? These kids went 14 days!

Dr. Alicia Arnold, “It is wonderful that they are in such relatively good health after a difficult ordeal. People can survive for weeks without any food, as long as they have water. How long a person can last without food depends in part on what kind of condition they were in prior to the food deprivation. Since these were kids and smaller in size to start with, some people were concerned that this would be especially difficult for them.”

What happens to the body when it goes that long without proper nutrition?

Dr. Alicia Arnold, “Normally, your body uses glucose from food for energy. When you don’t have enough to eat, the body uses other sources such as glycogen in the liver, and muscle, and fat. This allows people to be able to go for some time without any food.”

How about water?

Dr. Alicia Arnold, “Fortunately, they had access to water in the cave. People need water much more urgently than they need food. Without access to water, people tend not to survive the week. When they become severely dehydrated, people can have increased risk of health problems such as heart attack, stroke, and kidney failure.”

The boys are currently isolated in a hospital, why is that?

Dr. Alicia Arnold, “The isolation may to avoid any potential risk of disease transmission. The boys’ immune systems could be weakened due to their ordeal. There are different diseases that they might have been exposed to while trapped in the cave. For example, leptospirosis, which can be a serious bacterial illness and histoplasmosis, which is a potentially serious fungal illness.”

The cave was dark and cool. How big of a role did the conditions play in the health and wellness of the boys?

Dr. Alicia Arnold, “One advantage the boys had was that they didn’t get overheated in the cave. That helped them to conserve water and avoid dehydration. The downside to being in a dark cave is that it can be scary and disorienting to be in the dark for so long. This was a very difficult and traumatic event for these children, so in addition to their physical health, it will be important to evaluate their mental health for signs of post- traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.”