Hard day’s work

New Zealand has about 4 million or so people in it. About 3 million live in the north island, more than a million of those live in Auckland and are known as JAFAs which is a rather uncomplimentary abbrevaiton that I’ll not go into. About a million or so live in the south island, half of whom live in Christchurch.

So it would seem sensible that the island with a quarter of the population gets to have the spinal surgery unit. At least someone thought it was a good idea when they put the Burwood spinal unit in Christchurch. If I was the family member of someone with a spinal injury then I’d feel ticked off if I was a north islander. Thankfully I’m not.

The one advantage, there may be more, of this set up that it gives me free flights to Christchurch to transfer our patients with broken backs to them. I doubt this was what they were thinking when they designed the system.

So at 0705 on the 6/12/06 Mr W, for no apparent reason cycled into the back of a parked lorry, breaking his breast bone, causing bleeding beside his heart and broke his spine, causing spinal cord damage.


At 0705 on the 6/12/06 I’m fast asleep, having woke briefly, and realising it’s my day off I’ve crawled back under the covers and am dreaming of sunsets and falling down.

At 1500 I get a phone call from my boss while I’m lying on my bum reading and it’s my boss ringing to see if I fancy taking Mr W to Christchurch in the morning. I arrive in work at 0630 and get things set. He’s conscious and in reasonable form, and he’s got no chest drains and isn’t on a ventilator – the pressure changes at altitude can make that type of thing tricky so at least this is an easy one.

We get an ambulance to the airport and get on a Cessna type plane with three seats and room for a stretcher. In an airplane with a patient you can pretty much see their chest going up and down as they breathe but that’s about the height of what you can do. If they got sick then I wouldn’t fancy trying to do anything too advanced at 3000m. so the idea is to only transfer ‘stable’ patients.

I’m in my ridiculous oversized flight suit, which makes me look more like the Michelin man than super man – which was presumably the desired image. At least it’s got plenty of pockets.

We take off with clear blue skies and I can see Mt ruapehu in the centre of the north island, all the way across to Taranaki (the mountain for the backdrop in the Last Samurai) on the west coast all in one vista. I pinch myself and remember that they actually pay me for this kind of thing.

Half way flying down the north island, the battery in my camera runs out. Gutted. The cabin service on the flight is pretty marginal, given that there is none. Cathy, the flight nurse is prepare enough to bring a snack and a bottle of water. I think about pancakes a lot.

You can feel the temperature change as we cross the cook strait, a high grey haze obscures the sunlight and I can see all the way from the Kaikouras to the Southern Alps (or the misty mountains as you may know them).

It takes about 2 hours to fly north to south and Mr W sleeps the whole way there. I consider it and then I think it’s kind of irresponsible. We land smoothly in Christchurch and an ambulance picks us up. Cathy looks after the patient and to be honest I just carry is two suitcases and lap top. Like a reject from top guun in an oversized flight suit who’s taken up portering to make ends meet.

We arrive in the ICU in Christchurch and hand over to a Scots doc who works with one of my mates who I trained with back home. The world is indeed a small place. We get a free cup of tea and some toast (non-stop glamour lifestyle I know) from the ICU staff and then we’re back to the plane.

Flying over the country on the way back I doze off occasionally into a guilt free bliss. Staring out the window at this vast and wonderfully pretty country I keep thinking that it was here for thousands of years before the Maoris even turned up in the 15 th century. It was full of bizarre flightless 9ft birds that made easy meals for humans with pointy sticks. Must have been amazing to travel the empty and virgin country. Then I realsised that they wouldn’t have a pressurised Cessna to travel in and that you’d have to walk it all yourself.

“Too much like hard work” I thought as I drifted off.


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December 2006
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