Repatriation of Whakaari / White Island eruption victims to Australia eases pressure on NZ burns units

7:33 pm on 12 December 2019

The repatriation of Australian victims of the Whakaari / White Island eruption has taken the pressure off New Zealand burns units, which are at capacity.

Acting chief executive of Capital & Coast District Health Board Ashley Bloomfield

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

At the latest media briefing in Wellington about the eruption, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said 21 patients remained in New Zealand's burns units.

Pressure was "a lot better than it was, and I can't put enough emphasis on how helpful it is the efforts the Australians have made and especially with those six further people scheduled to go, that means there will be 15 people left in the burns units across the country", he said.

Seven Australian patients had been returned to Australia and another six were planned to be transferred in the next 24 hours.

Eight people are confirmed dead after the eruption on the island on Monday, and another eight are missing, presumed dead.

There are eight patients at Middlemore Hospital, seven of those in critical condition.

Waikato Hospital has four patients, all critical.

Four patients are at Hutt Hospital, two critical, one serious but stable, one stable.

In Christchurch burns unit there are five patients: three critical and two serious but stable.

Bloomfield said: "The most critical will be in Middlemore and as spaces have become available, particularly as people have been (medically evacuated) to Australia, you'll notice now there are no patients at Tauranga hospital, nor at Auckland hospital...

"The skin grafts are about $4 per square centimetre ... we've already agreed to about 1.5 million dollars worth of skin, that was for the order from the US."

Dr Sarah Morley, clinical lead at NZ Blood Agency told Checkpoint: "Skin comes... from our deceased donors. It's predominantly where families have agreed to the donation of organs and tissues from their loved ones after they've died.

"One of the key messages we would like New Zealanders to take away around this issue is that skin is an important tissue, an important gift from donors.

"It's also really important that we have New Zealand donors that help us in this way.

"If I could ask anything of New Zealanders at the moment, I would ask them to think carefully about whether they would like their tissues and organs to be used to help others after they die. And if they reach a conclusion, to discuss those views with the people that they love, and share their views so everyone in the family knows where they stand."

The eruption seen from the tourists' boat after they had left the island.

An image of the eruption as seen from a boat. Photo: Screengrab / YouTube / Allessandro Kauffman

Whakatāne Hospital after the eruption

Whakatāne Hospital needed to use every single bedspace and all its resources to deal with the first victims from the eruption on Whakaari / White Island.

Whakatāne Hospital medical leader Dr Heike Hundemer said at a press conference today that staff at the hospital held mass casualty training exercises, but what they were faced with on Monday was "beyond comprehension".

While they would normally have about six nurses and two doctors in the ED, on Monday there was about 100 staff, and they used every resource and bed space to care for the victims coming in, said Dr Hundemer.

"Monday is beyond anything we would have anticipated. I've never seen this number of critically injured patients coming into an emergency department in such a short space of time."

She said staff were affected by what they saw, and that they knew some of those they were treating or who had died.

Specialist teams to help

Specialist medical teams from overseas will travel here to help with the patients severely burned in the eruption.

The UK, the US and Australia have offered to send specialist teams to assist.

Bloomfield said the teams would provide much relief and help to ensure the best possible care was given over the coming days, weeks and months.

Police have not returned to the island to retrieve any bodies there as it has been deemed too dangerous.

They're planning on retrieving the bodies on Friday morning.

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