Helping hand for cyclone-hit communities

10 Mar, 2023
Helping hand for cyclone-hit communities

Cyclone Gabrielle wreaked havoc across Aotearoa’s North Island in February, with those in Hawke’s Bay and Tairāwhiti among the worst impacted.

With emergency services stretched and communities isolated, one AUT academic was asked to share her expertise.

Mel McAulay, Programme Leader and Senior Lecturer in Paramedicine, has a casual contract with Hato Hone St John as an Extended Care Paramedic (ECP), a relatively new role within the ambulance service.

With AUT’s agreement, Mel was part of a small team of ECPs sent to the likes of Wairoa and Ruatoria to help those communities that were difficult to access following the devastating cyclone.

“My role was a mix of accessing people by air and road working as part of a wider response team” Mel says.

“I spent two days using NZDF helicopters to get into places that were cut off by road. We were dropped at the community's central hub which was usually a school or fire station and ran clinics for the community from these sites.

“We dealt with a range of different things from injuries obtained in the initial cyclone to acute and primary health care conditions that people hadn't been able to see their normal practitioners for.”

Mel described the devastation as “surreal”.

“While the flooding has receded, the damage is still there. The silt in a lot of those places is a few metres high and then there’s forestry slash.”

And even when the rain stopped, the problems didn’t, she says.

“We had a couple of really nice days where it was beautiful - but then dust becomes a problem from the silt. Then it rained again. They pretty much can’t win at that point.”

When she wasn’t in a helicopter, Mel was riding around in a four-wheel drive with others, including Hato Hone St John Iwi Liasion, visiting marae and community centres.

What she found surprised her.

“It was evident that for rurally located communities, the idea of leaving their communities to seek medical support was a cause of additional stress and anxiety. None of these individuals wanted to leave, and in many cases were unable due to flooding, road conditions, bridges washed away and vehicles no longer in use.

“All were more concerned there was someone else in greater need of medical care and support. There was a lot of work convincing people that it was okay they needed help too.”

Head of Paramedicine Tony Ward says allowing Mel to travel to Hawke’s Bay was part of AUT’s social responsibility to be a thoughtful global citizen.

"Throughout the recent experiences suffered by many New Zealanders AUT was able to fully support Mel in travelling through to the cyclone ravaged region, providing additional on-the-ground urgent medical support,” Tony says.

“Mel was able to make vital connections accessing marae, schools and whānau to assess and provide care to those in need.”

Mel says her experience shows the importance of studying paramedicine, particularly for those in rural and remote areas, as well as the need to work together across all of health.

“We had Iwi Liaison, Public Health, Fire and Emergency, Police, and mental health support. It was a good team approach going into the communities.

“It was an amazing opportunity to have been involved in and it does highlight the importance of not only paramedics in these areas, but people working inter-professionally within health and within the wider emergency response.”

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