This post is published at 12:51 February 22 2013 – exactly 2 years to the day from the deadly Christchurch quake and 5.5km from where I was on that day. This morning I met with a PhD student as she prepares the penultimate version of her thesis. Two years ago she, I, another PhD student and several others from my research group occupied the “clip on” on the University of Otago Christchurch building above the main entrance of Christchurch Hospital. Less than 24 hours later the Papanui campus was established. First PhD student was within one month of submission of her thesis. The first task was to rescue as much of the thesis as we could from USB sticks etc. Fortunately we managed to put together enough to get on with, and her thesis eventually had a successful outcome.
When I reflect now, I just got on with what I knew I could do. I left my medical colleagues in the hospital to get on with what they knew best. I stood outside the hospital main entrance and saw the first casualties being brought in. Once I was sure that my students and colleagues were OK to find their way home, like thousands of others I started walking home to check on my own family. In the meantime, others worked. Yesterday I heard Prof Michael Ardagh, head of the Emergency Department, talk about the response of the hospital staff and medical students. It is a remarkable story – it worked, and lives were saved, because plans were in place. It worked because the staff put others ahead of themselves. This was not just the doctors and nurses. It was the med students who ran errands, the maintenance staff her with ingenuity (story of a truck and syphoning diesel) kept generators running, of blood bank staff in the bowels of the hospital ankle deep in water with intermittent power processing requests from the ED and ICU, of the Canterbury Health Labs who picked up their equipment, recalibrated, and were back on line within 20 minutes.
The University of Otago Christchurch building is now open again. The students are back, and the labs up and running. I hope to get an office back sometime in the next month or two. The scientific community from the universities of Lincoln and Canterbury, and private enterprises like Canterbury Scientific have been fantastic at opening their doors and hosting labs and staff. Others, like myself, established themselves where they could and got on with what they could. While there are casualties of the disruption – staff moved on (I no longer have a lab group to work with), studies interrupted (I had a study going in the ED and ICU at the time which was inevitably suspended), and grants not able to be written for lack of staff, pilot data etc, there has also been much success to celebrate. Not least are two years of teaching which happened at various odd venues around the city including several sporting club rooms. Prof Christine Winterbourne was awarded the highest scientific award in New Zealand in 2011 – the Rutherford Medal, and there were other awards for Uni Otago Christchurch staff too. Just this past month some colleagues have received promotions to Professorships – deserved. Some new research areas have begun, particularly over the health effects of a major disaster. Students have graduated, and many papers have been published (12 & a book chapter for me in the last 2 years ). Plenty to celebrate.
Across the front of the University of Otago Christchurch building are the words “Research Saves Lives.” Decades of research saved lives on 22 February 2011. The research in the years since will save lives in the years to come. Well done colleagues. Thank you Canterbury for the support.