Middlemore doctor shares horror of Whakaari White Island victims' injuries

Warning: This article contains details which may disturb some readers.


The Whakaari/White Island eruption has left patients with such severe burns that the majority have been kept unconscious while surgeons fight to save their lives.

The eruption killed 16 people, and 14 more remain in hospital with extensive burns.

"A lot of patients are in induced comas just because of the severity of their injury," said Dr Vanessa Thornton, clinical director of Middlemore Emergency Department.

While the National Burns Unit sees a lot of severe burns, Dr Thornton says she has never seen anything like the injuries of the Whakaari victims.

"These injuries are unique in the fact that they're volcanic eruption burns," she told Magic Talk on Tuesday.

Treating such extensive burns is not easy - some patients are so burnt they do not have enough skin left to graft, leaving no option but to cover them in cadaver skin.

"Initially we use skin that's been brought in - cadaver skin - so we cover them in that," Dr Thornton said.

Cadaver skin is not a permanent solution - like organ donations, the skin must be matched to the patient or else it will be rejected.

The cadaver skin can be used for up to two weeks before it needs to be replaced.

Dr Thornton says other patients have skin that is so burnt it has to be removed. This is called debridement.

"It's the removal of your skin and replacement with cadaver skin or graft skin - it's an injury to the skin where the skin dies and it won't regrow so we need to remove it," said Dr Thornton.

She says surgeons are working around the clock to save the lives of Whakaari's victims, and they are grateful for the support of the community.

"In general we have to be grateful we've had a lot of messages of wellbeing," she told Magic Talk.

"We just want to thank the people for that, at Middlemore particularly, we're under a lot of pressure for our usual work so we thank our community for being thoughtful about that," she said.

"A lot of messages of wellbeing have come through and that's really helpful for the people working continuously in theatre so we thank the people for that."

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