SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — A fisherman who says he drifted at sea for more than a year, surviving on raw fish, turtles and bird blood, is in stunningly good health but psychologically fragile, medical experts said Wednesday as the sailor recuperated in a hospital in his native El Salvador.
Jose Salvador Alvarenga told doctors that he came close to giving up hope of being rescued after several large ships came near his small fishing but none tried to rescue him, even though sailors on at least one even waved at him.
"They passed close by, he asked them for help and they didn't want to provide it," said El Salvador's minister of public health, Maria Isabel Rodriguez.
Although he was close to despair, "his desire to live was greater, he thought of his family and said that he wanted to live," Rodriguez said.
Alvarenga underwent a battery of tests after returning home from the Marshall Islands, where he showed up after what he has described as 6,500-mile (10,500-kilometer) journey from Mexico across the Pacific that began when his small fishing boat was thrown off course by bad weather.
The medical team that examined him at the San Rafael hospital in the Salvadoran capital said he was in remarkably good physical health: with no skin lesions from overexposure to the sun, and no cardiovascular or kidney issues. His only physical problem, doctors, was a case of anemia.
"All of the exams have been basically close to normal. It's incredible," Rodriguez said.
She and other Salvadoran experts who looked at Alvarenga's results said they had no doubt about the veracity of his tale, so incredible that it left many skeptical even in the absence of an alternate explanation for his appearance on the Pacific Island atoll.
"He challenges ideas about human physiology that we've had for a long time, but miracles exist and I don't think there's any reason to doubt him," hospital director Yeerles Ramirez told reporters.
All of the doctors expressed concern about Alvarenga's mental state, however, saying he appeared shaken and asked to be given as much privacy as possible.
"He's been telling us, 'Let me rest.' That's his phrasing, that we let him rest, and that people aren't taking pictures of him," Rodriguez said.
She said that after Alvarenga arrived at the San Salvador airport late Tuesday and saw dozens of waiting reporters, photographers and cameramen, "he quickly fell into a depression and started crying because he's not ready to talk to the whole world."
Alvarenga, 37, has asked for tortillas and a pupusa, a thick stuffed corn tortilla that is a Salvadoran specialty, and he has already eaten a tortilla with cheese, Rodriguez said.
Alvarenga will remain hospitalized for at least two days while he rests and undergoes a series of exams, among them a test of his kidney function, Ramirez told reporters outside the hospital.
Alvarenga's story stunned the world when he washed up on the Ebon atoll almost two weeks ago, appearing robust and barely sunburned after more than a year at sea. But he had started out a much larger man, and doctors found that he was swollen and in pain from the ordeal, suffering from dehydration.
The journey back home after a week of rest and medical treatment in the Marshall Islands capital of Majuro was marked by long layovers in Honolulu and Los Angeles, where doctors checked his health and ability to continue the trip.
"I'm so happy to know he's alive, that he returned. I want to give him a hug," said Emma Alvarenga, an aunt who arrived at the airport to see him but was left outside the VIP lounge where he was taken.
His father, Jose Ricardo Orellana, 65, who owns a store and flour mill in the seaside Salvadoran town, has said his son first went to sea at age 14. "The sea was his thing," Orellana said last week after learning of Alvarenga's story.
Maria Julia Alvarenga, 59, said her son always had unusual strength and resilience.
His 14-year-old daughter, Fatima, has made an archway of palms for the front door of the family home in the fishing village of Garita Palmera and hung a sign proclaiming "Welcome." She didn't remember ever seeing her father, who left El Salvador to fish in Mexico when she was just over a year old.Comment on this story
Alvarenga said he worked in a fishing village on the Pacific coast of Mexico's southern Chiapas state, where he embarked. A man with his nickname, "Cirilo," had been registered as missing with civil defense officials there. They said a small fishing boat carrying two men, the other named Ezequiel Cordoba, disappeared during bad weather on Nov. 17, 2012, and no trace of them or the craft was found during an intense two-week search.
Cordoba died after about a month when he couldn't eat the raw fish and turtles, Alvarenga has said.
Photos from the Marshall Islands published by Britain's Telegraph newspaper showed the boat that Alvarenga purportedly arrived in. It bore the hand-lettered name of a Chiapas fishing cooperative, Camaroneros de la Costa, for which Alvarenga said he worked in Costa Azul near Tonala.
The photos also showed a large plastic cooler that Alvarenga purportedly used to shelter himself from the sun and sea.