Philippines disaster gives doctor his chance to help

By Dawn Picken

ON A MISSION: Tauranga orthopaedic surgeon Vaughan Poutawera is doing emergency surgeries on Typhoon Haiyan victims in the Philippines.
ON A MISSION: Tauranga orthopaedic surgeon Vaughan Poutawera is doing emergency surgeries on Typhoon Haiyan victims in the Philippines.

Vaughan Poutawera sits on a wooden bench at Baywave in Mount Maunganui, watching his youngest daughter during swimming lessons.

Bringing three children to the pool on a Wednesday afternoon is normally part of his wife's routine, but on this day, Poutawera was happy to have the assignment.

"I'm trying to spend all the time I can with them before I leave," he says, as 6-year-old Maia trots back to the pool. Ten-year-old Brooke and 8-year-old James are off in the bigger pool.

Lots of dads leave town on business, but the 38-year-old is leaving the country on a mission: disaster relief. The orthopaedic surgeon, who splits his practice between Tauranga, Grace and Whakatane Hospitals, is working with the Australian Medical Assistance Team in Tacloban, the Philippine city hardest hit by Typhoon Haiyan last month.

He's the only Kiwi doctor working with this group of 37 (nicknamed Team Bravo), as a member of New Zealand's Medical Assistance Team.

"I've had disaster training and it's partly luck this time I get to go. My vaccines are up-to-date, they needed an orthopaedic surgeon, and I trained in Darwin earlier this year with the Australian Medical Assistance Team."

Poutawera explained New Zealand doesn't have a field hospital - no large cache of equipment to bring to disasters when a hurricane, typhoon or earthquake strikes - while Australia has a mobile theatre.

Poutawera, who left Darwin for the Philippines on November 27, plans to be gone three weeks.

"Hopefully it's only three weeks. There are no commercial flights in and out of Tacloban right now, so we're relying on military transport."

Now on the ground in Tacloban, he wakes at 5.30am and is operating by 8am. Most days he finishes surgery about 6pm, but it has been as late as 1am.

He is performing manipulations and casts for closed and open fractures, tendon and nerve repairs, debridements (the removal of damaged tissue or foreign objects from a wound) of infected wounds, amputations, skin grafts and laparotomy (a surgical incision into the abdominal area).

Mr Poutawera said the toughest cases had been traumatic leg amputations, which were emotionally taxing for the patients.

As an orthopaedic surgeon at home, Poutawera treats musculoskeletal conditions - trauma, sports injuries, degenerative diseases, infections, tumours and congenital disorders. In the Philippines he's working as a general surgeon, operating on anyone who comes through the field hospital.

"They asked me if I could do caesarean sections," the smiling doctor said during a conversation before he left for Tacloban. "I don't think I've done one of those since med school. It's probably been 10 years since I've even removed an appendix."

Poutawera's wife, Brenda, a Tauranga paediatric doctor, is nervous about the Philippines assignment but supportive of her husband's work.

"My initial reaction was a combination of pride and nerves. This is his first disaster mission so I don't really know what to expect. No communication will be the biggest adjustment. I'm overwhelmingly proud of him, and appreciate all the support from friends."

Humanitarian work has always been a passion for Poutawera, one he has been able to engage in since settling in Tauranga a couple of years ago.

"When I graduated from med school, I wanted to join [the humanitarian aid organisation] Medicins Sans Frontieres, but back then you had to commit to one year, so I never got around to it. Then, life takes over - your training takes you from city to city, overseas. There's one exam after another ... now that we're not moving around, I can help in places like the Philippines."

Poutawera spent three months in South Africa as a medical student and has also travelled twice to the Cook Islands where he served with Raratonga's sole surgeon. "He's amazing. The guy's on call 24-hours a day, seven days a week."

The New Zealand Government, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, will pay Poutawera's public sector salary, plus travel and accommodation costs during the mission.

Ministry of Health Emergency Management director Charles Blanch said Poutawera's deployment was part of a package of support to the Philippines. The Government has pledged up to $5 million to help with relief efforts.

The typhoon's death toll has topped 5700, most from Tacloban and the surrounding areas in the eastern part of the country. Nearly 1800 people are missing, and more than 26,000 injuries have been reported.

Follow Vaughan Poutawera and Team Bravo on Facebook by liking National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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