The New Zealand Air Ambulance Service (NZAAS) and Skyline Aviation crews who flew critically ill patients from Whakatāne hospital to New Zealand's burns units say they are now focused on transporting patients across the world and back home to their families.
Eight people are confirmed dead after the volcano in the Bay of Plenty erupted suddenly on Monday afternoon. The bodies of others are being retrieved from the island, and there are many more people critically injured in hospital.
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NZAAS director Annabel Toogood said three out of their fleet of nine aeromedical aircrafts, including one based at Hawke's Bay Airport, were dispatched to transport burn patients to tertiary hospitals throughout New Zealand.
"Our fixed-wing service with aeromedical specialist on board primary focus was safely moving patients," she said. "One of our international aeromedical jets with one of our intensive care flight doctors and flight nurse on board safely transported a burns victim from New Zealand to Australia.
"This complex mission required careful logistical planning and multiple inputs from both the treating team and receiving specialist burns consultants, ensuring we were providing the highest level of care, planning and treatment throughout the transport."
Toogood added: "We have yet to tally up the air miles but we have certainly spent many hours in the sky during the week as a result of this incident."
NZAAS medical director Dr Shay McGuinness was tasked with overseeing the planning of the transport and the clinical care.
"Complex patient transports of the sort required for these patients' demands a high level of teamwork and cooperation both within NZAAS and with the many district health board staff that are involved in their care.
"Although the events themselves are tragic, it is extremely rewarding to see how well our staff and those in the DHB hospitals coped under the extreme pressure."
Toogood said their role was now to "support the hospitals and agencies involved in repatriating patients back to their families and homes".
"We specialise in long-haul commercial medical care on airlines and have our international air ambulance fleet on standby. Our flight coordinators are in the planning stages of transporting more of these patients across the world back home when it is considered clinically appropriate. That is our focus now, to get them home to their families and support their care."
Flight nursing director Angela Coward arrived at Whakatāne hospital on Monday.
"On behalf of our team at NZAAS I would like to extend a huge thank you to the teams that triaged, stabilised and cared for the patients from Whakaari Island eruption," she said.
"We have been involved in the transportation of victims of the Christchurch earthquake and the mass shooting in Christchurch. Both events required urgent aeromedical assistance. However, this is the first time we have dealt with burns patients on this scale."
Toogood added: "Collectively we had over 30 of our team directly involved. Our team feels a huge amount of empathy for these patients and families, some of which are faced with being at the bedside of multiple relatives who have been badly injured in this incident.
"Our thoughts are with all those involved and the front-line teams that provided primary evacuation off the Island, many of which were members of the public, a scene that will stay with them forever."