The Australian doctor who was the last man out of the Thai cave following the rescue of the Wild Boars soccer team found out shortly afterwards his father had died.
Richard Harris’ boss, Andrew Pearce, says he has spoken with “Harry”, as he is known.
“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 said.
“He will be coming home soon and taking some well-earned time off to be with his family. He has asked that the family’s privacy is respected at this time.”
Adelaide anaesthetist Dr Harris was meant to be on holiday but instead found himself putting his own life at risk to venture into the Chiang Rai cave to medically assess the 12 boys and their coach trapped inside.
While the world celebrated the survival of all 12 boys and their coach, Dr Harris and three Navy SEALS were still making their way out. They would emerge several hours later.
He was part of a team of 20 Australians involved in the Thai-led rescue effort, which included his West Australian dive partner, six Federal Police divers, the Navy clearance diver and members of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Crisis Rescue Team.
Dr Harris responded to the call for help from Thai authorities when he was named specifically by the British diving team leading the mission as the best person for the job, with his medical skills and 30 years diving experience.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop said it took an incredible team effort to rescue the boys, with Dr Harris playing a key role.
“He was an integral part of the rescue attempt,” she told the ABC.
“He was specifically identified by the British diving team as an expert whose skills would be required and he was asked for at the highest levels within the Thai Government and fortunately he was able to go to Chiang Rai and be part of the rescue.
“He is internationally renowned for his expertise in cave rescues.
“He’s very well known to us in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade because he’s part of the Australian Medical Assistance Team that goes overseas under our aid programme to support developing countries.”
British divers found the team in the labyrinth of flooded caves on July 2 after they had been missing for nine days.
Ms Bishop said all the Australians involved would be in line for formal recognition of their actions.
“Clearly this has been an extraordinary team effort. We’ve been part of the Thai-led international effort.
Dr Harris’ role has been quite extraordinary and I’m hoping that we’ll be in a position to thank all of our rescue team when they return to Australia.”
Thailand’s Navy SEALs, who were central to the rescue effort, said on their Facebook page the remaining four boys and their 25-year-old coach were all brought out safely early on Tuesday evening (local time).
Harris decided what order the trapped boys should leave the cave
Dr Harris assessed the health of the boys and their coach, determining who needed to get out of the cave quickest and who could wait longer.
Australian Medical Association (AMA) President Dr Tony Bartone said Dr Harris put his own safety on the line to help others and should be commended.
“Dr Harris’ 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.
The AMA tweeted that Dr Harris was “an amazing doctor and human being”.
Bill Griggs, who used to be Dr Harris’ boss at South Australia’s emergency medical retrieval service, MedSTAR, where the anaesthetist still works, said it was his rare skill set that made Thai authorities seek him out.
“To do cave-diving, you have to be all about attention to detail and you have to be meticulous,” Dr Griggs told ABC radio.
“The combination of his medical knowledge and his cave-diving skills was clearly (why) the British guys requested that he come as well.”
Dr Griggs said it was likely Dr Harris would be a reluctant hero over his role in the successful rescues.
“I suspect ‘Harry’ will feel much the same as others, and I, have felt,” he said.
“When you’ve been a part of a team, you really feel at little bit embarrassed, or sheepish, about [the accolades] because it is a big team effort.”