Monday, February 28, 2011

Returning home

It’s now nearly one week after the earthquake. The official death toll is still rising, as searchers systematically go through the rubble. No one has been found alive since Wednesday.

In the Air New Zealand magazine, an advertisement now has the ring of bitter irony: “What investment could be safer than houses?” Every plane leaving Christchurch is booked solid. Small children with their own little backpacks peer out from the aisle. The mood on board is surprisingly upbeat, although the newspaper reports suggest that some of those leaving Christchurch are leaving forever.

I don’t often watch TV, but this weekend I turned it on, drawn despite myself to the stories of disaster and eyewitness accounts. Every figure crossing the screen is labelled either “lucky survivor” or “brave rescuer” by the (usually breathlessly overwhelmed) presenter. I know they’re trying to do a good job, but it seems disingenuous. I don’t like being witness to a hyena feeding frenzy. My mental disturbance is not helped by watching footage of destruction sandwiched by ads trying to sell me maternal health supplements and hair care products. The most obscene ad I saw was one which tried to insinuate that eating McDonalds would help me lose weight (“Weight Watcher’s approved – so now you can feel good!”)

Luckily, the newspaper coverage from The Press is far better. Amazingly, it’s still being published and delivered – a much slimmer format than usual, but the writing in it is often pretty good. Many of the eyewitness accounts are from Press reporters whose building was one of those destroyed in the CBD. Writing as citizens and fellow survivors, their accounts are detailed, insightful and full of clarity, rather than swimming in emotion. There’s time enough for emotion later, now is the time for facts which can help people. I’m particularly impressed by the editor who is already thinking about the future of the city and whether this time, relocation (rather than repair) of the CBD is the best option.

Ditto with National Radio, on which I was briefly interviewed on Saturday afternoon. Conscious of the fact that radio is now the main information source for affected families, they’re doing their best to provide up to the minute advice about where to get clean water, food supplies, help. They’re also broadcasting messages of support and help on its way – I was asked to talk about what the arts community is doing to help (many fundraisers have either been held or are planned, as well as more practical measures to help professionals and businesses get back on their feet).

Online, there’s information flying around. Aside from a few messages still seeking people who haven’t made contact, you can now download information sheets about maintaining mental health and news items about what’s being done to support the disabled, refugees and the elderly. The trivialities have returned to facebook – there’s 20 replies to a post about what colour car to buy.

My weekend at Grey Hospital was civilised, although I did get more patients than usual. None of these were from Christchurch, but it does seem that there are going to be a lot of knock-on effects from the earthquake. Many patients outside Christchurch rely on services there being available when they need them, and many are trying to anticipate demand by getting seen earlier or moving to another centre. I communicated with other paediatricians – frequent phone meetings are taking place as units around NZ fill up. There’s a particular demand for Level 3 (the most intensive) baby care, and this could get worse with a number of premature births expected to be triggered by the earthquake. Midwives are among the professions being asked to volunteer to help. The situation is likely to last months and I’m worried about burnout of my colleagues.

As I step out of Auckland airport in search of a taxi home I'm greeted by a blast of warm air - it's 25 degrees and yet another scorcher. It feels as if I've been away for longer than three days. I'm happy to be home and on solid ground.

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