New Zealand has ordered 1,290 square feet of skin from the U.S. to treat the dozens of victims suffering severe burns after Monday’s volcanic eruption on White Island as surgeons continue to work around the clock in what has been described as “a war zone.”
Burns units at hospitals across the country were at full capacity treating 29 of the rescued victims, Dr. Peter Watson, chief medical officer with Counties Manukau Health, told reporters Wednesday. Twenty-two of the patients remained in critical condition and required airway support.
The unprecedented number of victims at one time and the nature of their burns complicated by the gases and chemicals released from the eruption required surgeons to work at a quicker pace than usual, Watson said, adding that recovery would take time.
“This is just the start of a very long process that, for some patients, will take several months,” he said.
The island was crowded with 47 tourists from around the world when the eruption occurred, including 24 people from Australia, nine Americans, two from China, four from Germany, five people from New Zealand, two from the United Kingdom, and one person from Malaysia.
Rescuers rushing to the island on boats to help following the eruption have recounted horrific scenes of survivors running into the sea to escape the scalding steam and ash. Many emerged covered in burns.
John Bonning, president of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, told the New Zealand Herald that as he wheeled patients into Waikato Hospital after the eruption he could smell sulfur on their clothing and looked on in horror as their bodies shed “bits of dead skin” and “broken ash.”
“It was awful, just horrific,” Bonning said. “Saying it was like a war zone would not be an understatement.”
While 26 of the patients had burns covering at least 30 percent of their bodies, others had suffered burns to over 90 percent of their bodies, Dr. John Kenealy, clinical director of Surgery and Perioperative Services at Middlemore Hospital, told reporters.
For reference, he said the palm of the hand makes up 1.5 percent of the skin on the human body.