Whakaari/White Island eruption: One year on

Three local anaesthetists reflect on their experiences of treating the victims of New Zealand's deadliest volcanic event in more than 70 years.

A year on from the Whakaari/White Island eruption that claimed 22 lives and left another 25 suffering extensive burns, we recognise our fellows in Whakatane who triaged the victims and passed them on to burns units throughout New Zealand and on to Australia.

New Zealand National Burns Centre (NBC) anaesthetist Dr Matt Taylor FANZCA says the usual survival rate for people caught in a volcanic eruption is 0-5 per cent. In this instance, the survival rate was over 50 per cent – something that he believes has never happened before. The survival rate is even more amazing when you factor in this was a hydrothermal eruption and a horizontal explosion blasting scalding hot ash and acid compounds deep into the victims’ skin. No one in New Zealand, and few elsewhere, have had any experience in dealing with volcanic eruption victims, let alone one at such close quarters.

Anaesthetist Dr Frank Deutsch FANZCA was rostered on a 24-hour on-call shift when he was alerted to the eruption.

“A young guy was brought in. I remember the sulphur smell. He was completely white, covered in ash. His eyes were white. I could see he was in pain but with skin coming off, I could not put the cannula where I normally would."

He arranged for theatre staff to finish procedures; prepare medications, pain relief, cannulas, fluids, and intubation equipment; and stand by. Then asked colleagues at home to do the same.

“Every minute was used to get ready. Hospital staff from the wards and elsewhere came to help. Then the first patient came through the door. And then the next one came, and the next one; one after another, after another.”

Whakatane Hospital's lead anaesthetist at the time, Dr Lutz Sauer FANZCA, was finishing up in clinic when he was called to ED. A regular visitor to the island, he had never felt unsafe there.

“I probably try to appreciate each day more now as I realise that could have been me or my loved ones; it could all be over in a minute. It was a life-changing event for all involved."

Anaesthetist and intensivist Dr Owen Callender FANZCA assisted with some of the ED patients, then went through to the acute care unit, wards and theatres (which were all being used) to place central lines, and help with intubations, analgesia and fluid management.

“I was struck by the immense scale of the suffering we were witnessing. As part of the resuscitation team, I couldn’t take as much time as I normally would to comfort and reassure patients, to explain what we were doing and what was going to happen. We just had to do our job … supporting each other with the occasional hug and pep talk. It was like nothing I have been through before.”

Other Whakatane Hospital anaesthetists working that night were Dr Denise White, Dr Wolf Kremer, Dr Nikolas Haus and Dr Heike Hundemer, who was also the hospital’s medical leader. A few days after the eruption Dr Hundemer told media that while staff had held mass casualty training exercises, what they were faced with after the eruption was "beyond comprehension".
Fellows, trainees, and SIMGs can read more on the Whakaari/White Island eruption response in the summer edition of the ANZCA Bulletin out in mid-December.

Last updated 16:14 19.01.2022