Severe injuries were suffered when this bus was hit by falling masonry during the earthquake
Millions of words have been written since the terrible earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand, this week and while I have been there on the spot to cover the story, there is little point in trying to sum up the extent of it – the consequences, with the death toll rising steadily past the 100 mark, have been too wide-reaching, affecting too many families for me to be able to begin to express the true horror of this natural disaster.
There have been victims and heroes, there have been those who have had narrow escapes and there are those who wait anxiously for news of missing loved ones. What story do I pick to sum it up – the teenagers who sat on a pavement hoping their mother was alive in one of the buildings, only to learn that no-one in there could have survived…the same teenagers who learned that while they were away from home, someone broke in and stole many of their belongings?
There is the British man I spoke to who would have been crushed to death by the tumbling steeple of Christchurch Cathedral if his girlfriend had not called him in to a Tourist Information Bureau seconds before the masonry crashed down. And then there is the stomach-churning story of the doctor….
Working by torchlight, he crept into a tiny space in the crumbled ruins of a building in Christchurch and began an operation he would never forget – amputating a trapped man’s legs with a Swiss Army-style knife and a hacksaw.
‘Those were the only implements I had,’ said 38-year-old Dr Stuart Philip. ‘It was either work with them there and then or leave him to die.’
It took Mr Philip and other doctors five hours to crawl through the pancaked Pyne Gould Corporation building to reach the 52-year-old trapped man, who has only been identified as Brian.
Mr Philip, a urologist, had been attending a conference in Christchurch when the earthquake struck on Tuesday and he was one of many doctors who rushed into the city centre to render assistance.
‘My first job was actually climbing up into the top of the building where there was an Australian guy trapped. He subsequently died because we couldn’t get him out.’
Then he came across the man whose legs were trapped by a huge beam, which was impossible to move.
‘Several other doctors, along with an anaesthetist, were able to join me and we agreed on what had to be done to save him – and that was to amputate his legs,’ said Mr Philip.
He was handed a multi-blade Leatherman knife – similar to a Swiss Army knife – to begin the cutting and then a builder handed him a hacksaw to continue the operation of sawing through the man’s bones
above his knees.
‘I know that sounds terrible, but that’s all we had,’ said Mr Philip. ‘The anaesthetist was able to administer pain relief, but it still wasn’t enough to dull the agony.’ Much of the operation was carried out by a female urologist, because she was able to squeeze in through a tiny space next to the trapped
man. The female doctor was severely traumatised by the event and has since
returned to Australia.
‘It’s not something that’s easy even for us as surgeons,’ said Mr Philip. ‘Nothing prepares you for that. ‘While we were working there were a number of aftershocks. I’ve never been so frightened in my life, but we just kept going.’
He has since learned that the man is recovering in Waikato Hospital, his family around him. ‘He’s already out of intensive care. It’s things like that which do make it worthwhile.’
The doctor said he was so concerned that the building would collapse on him that at one point he sent a text to his wife Emma, also a doctor, to say goodbye to her and their children, son Sam, five and daughter Hannah, three.
‘At one stage, when we were having aftershocks and the rubble was falling, we weren’t sure if we were going to make it out alive. ‘My wife sent me a terse text message telling me to get out of the building,’ he told the Christchurch Press newspaper. Mr Philip dismissed suggestions that he and the rest of the medical
team were heroes.
‘I don’t think so. We’re surgeons. We’re not trauma surgeons, but you can’t leave people there.’