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A year on: Reflecting on the Christchurch earthquake


13 March 2012

By Dr Elizabeth Ormerod and Dr Andrew Muirhead-Smith

The day itself was obviously like nothing we had seen before. Experiencing such a frenzied situation with so much major trauma as junior doctors was both amazing and stressful. In the evening, once the adrenaline of the day died down, we had a chance to think more about our own practical issues. These included trying to contact family and friends, which had been difficult to do during the day as phone lines were disrupted and work took priority.

We were very lucky in that all of our close friends and colleagues who were in Christchurch at the time all turned out to be safe and well. The majority had been at work in the hospital when the earthquake took place; however some were at home in Sumner, a suburb of Christchurch, and found themselves setting up a triage centre for local casualties. Two of our Irish colleagues were in town at the time, one saw the CTV building collapse in front of them and the other only managed to get half a head of hair cut before the hairdressers collapsed!

Experiencing such a frenzied situation with so much major trauma as junior doctors was both amazing and stressful

In retrospect, we were lucky working in the hospital because we remained a priority for power and water where it was lacking in many other parts of the city. We heard during the day that many of the roads had been destroyed by liquefaction and cracking throughout the city and this meant that we were unable to get home that first evening. We made other plans and one of us was kindly taken in by a consultant who lived locally to the hospital, and the other stayed with friends. Even in these central areas, kilometres from the epicentre, we were without basic amenities and could witness first-hand the extensive damage to buildings and structures throughout the city. Throughout the first night the aftershocks were relentless and sleep proved difficult with the thoughts of what was to come.

The next day the practicalities of dealing with the devastation caused by the earthquake were noticeable. Most doctors turned up looking tired and anxious and in yesterday’s scrubs, but keen to help and start to plan for what was to come. Wards were mostly back in operation, apart from a few lower floors that had to be evacuated due to flooding and the fire brigade had set up industrial pumps to start to clear it.

The second night after the earthquake the medical workload had settled and most of us were able to return home to assess the damage. The journey home was an interesting one and was long, dusty and bumpy. We both live up on the hills, which were potentially unstable at that time and so around 20 doctors including ourselves got together at a friend’s house which was structurally sound, and there was the offer of food and a bed for the night. This also gave us a chance to catch up with everyone’s stories and experiences and provide emotional support to colleagues.

In the days and months following the earthquake the medical workload reduced and there was a huge effort by the hospital as a whole to group together and work out a way forward.

It was still unknown at this stage what the longer term medical issues might be

We realised at this time that sadly the patients who could have survived had already been pulled out from the rubble and the priority moved from rescue to recovery across the city.

This meant that we had to try and reduce the load on the hospital resources and therefore plans were made to relocate patients to other medical facilities all around New Zealand. The response from across the country was outstanding and meant we were able to transfer patients from day one to take the pressure off our strained system. It was still unknown at this stage what the longer term medical issues might be and what capacity would be required, so reducing the pressure was essential.

Experience from other natural disasters has shown that there is often a second wave of medical problems, most commonly cardiac issues and gastroenteritis related to poor hygiene, that occur in the weeks following and so we expected the same to happen.

Despite this being a turbulent and stressful time we were privileged to work with many dedicated and kind New Zealanders and healthcare workers from all over the world

Despite this being a turbulent and stressful time we were privileged to work with many dedicated and kind New Zealanders and healthcare workers from all over the world. The true spirit of Cantabrians shone through in offers of support, from offering lodging to doing our laundry. It was an amazing experience, we saw some drastic sights, and through all of this we learnt a huge amount about medicine and the associated dilemmas. This, however, is something we do not intend to encounter again in the near future.

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