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White Island eruption: “We needed more skin”

The Bay of Plenty volcano erupted last year, killing 21 people. Photo: Daniel Hines/SunLive.

In the wake of the Whakaari eruption, an operating theatre at Middlemore Hospital was running 24 hours a day for an entire week as the national burns unit dealt with "phenomenal numbers" of patients.

Emergency department clinical director Vanessa Thornton spoke to Stuff about the events of six months ago that saw the team dealing with an unprecedented number of patients, all with complex and significant injuries.

Vanessa says she had been in a St John board meeting that afternoon and "didn't even realise people were on the island" initially.

That changed when the phone rang around 4.15pm, almost two hours after the eruption that claimed 21 lives and left another 26 with severe injuries.

"We started to realise there's going to be some patients."

Vanessa says they had no initial idea how many patients they could expect when setting up their response team. By 5pm they knew one person was on the way.

By 7pm, they had four patients, luckily arriving "relatively spaced out" rather than all at once.

She says they all required complex care due to the nature of the injuries.

"It's very rare to see volcanic burns. Volcanos have different components in them, a lot of the conversations were about ash."

Vanessa says the volcanic injuries included an acid that keeps burning, so patients had to have skin removed and replaced with cadaver skin or covered with plastic wrap.

Middlemore Hospital emergency department clinical director Vanessa Thornton. Photo: Stuff.

"We needed more skin," she says of those initial hours and days when the patient number peaked at 12, others having been sent to regional burns centres.

"We would never have 12 burns patients of this nature at once, phenomenal numbers."

She says they were assisted by surgeons from Australia and Canada, as well as overseas nursing staff as there was "a lot of operating".

She says in their initial phase four theatres were running 24 hours a day.

"For a long time, at least three weeks, a phenomenal amount of burns surgery."

Vanessa says the longest stay for any patient was three-and-a-half months.

"They have ongoing rehabilitation of some nature - it's a long road for people with significant burns."

Vanessa also praised the work of staff she described as "amazing".

"Everyone was working really hard, our team just got down to work."

-Stuff/Benn Bathgate

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