Michelle Cole shakes and keeps her cool in Christchurch
Michelle Cole completed her Bachelor of Nursing degree at University of Newcastle in 2010 and successfully applied for a new graduate position at Canterbury District Health as part of a specialist Mental Health Nursing program that offered a post graduate certificate package.
Michelle arrived in New Zealand in December 2010 having heard a lot about New Zealand earthquakes, but, had only ever experienced a few mild aftershocks. On Tuesday, 22 February 2011 that would change.
Michelle was working at the Mental Health campus ten minutes up the road from the centre of Christchurch and was catching up with a colleague in a small office when the February 2011 earthquake hit. It threw her to the ground and tipped most of the office contents on top of her and her colleague. They struggled to get to the doorway and held each other as a second shock hit. People started running and Michelle's colleague left to try to get to her kids at school. As Michelle had no earthquake experience she assumed that what she had just experienced was not too 'big a deal' and went to join a consultant psychiatrist for a mental health assessment.
At the assessment, Michelle and the consultant psychiatrist met with a family from out of town, who despite the earthquake, were begging for the assessment to proceed due to long waiting lists. So, a very surreal hour of assessment commenced interspersed with a quick formulation break and consistent big aftershocks. After the assessment, Michelle emerged from the office to see TV images of people being pulled from buildings just down the road from her and it became clear that the earthquake had been a 'big deal'.
No phones worked, mobile or land line, and the city was essentially running on backup power. Michelle could not contact her family to let them know that she was ok, nor could she ascertain their situation. A message was received from the Head of Child and Family Services that staff were not to leave work until further notice. This announcement was fairly challenging given that many colleagues had already left and stories of deaths, broken roads and bridges were emerging amidst the rapidly building sound of sirens and alarms.
After the acute units had been staffed, the remaining staff were cleared to leave and Michelle followed other staff on an alternative route out of Christchurch.
What was usually a one hour trip home took three hours. On the journey Michelle was able to use her mobile phone and spoke to her partner who was waiting for her to get home so that they could travel together up to Michelle's parents' house. There was no word from Michelle's brother who also worked in Christchurch, nor other family members. Finally, later that evening, after everyone was safe, Michelle and her family sat around the lounge at her parents' house drinking and fielding phone calls from overseas and around the country. When Michelle's brother also arrived safely the family knew how lucky they were to be alive.
Over the next few days, being in Christchurch was like being in a different city, everything had changed. Army tanks rolled beside cars on the road, port-a-loo’s dotted the streets and work place staff were un-washed and in shock. Many staff were still absent. 4WD pools where created to get to clients where normal vehicles could no longer drive and adhoc washing machines and dryers where set up for staff at work. As city and health information was disseminated, staff were slowly accounted for, support was given to those who needed assistance and new and creative alliances where formed to get through the mountain of things that needing doing.
Over the next 6 months, Michelle nursed many people affected by the February 2011 and ongoing earthquakes. Many of the patients were highly functional community minded 'helpers' who simply became psychotic and/or manic after no sleep and helping others to the detriment of their own health. Other patients were well known to the service, but, had destabilised due to disruption to medication, housing, transport, relationships or ongoing trauma and stress.
After 6 months, as part of Michelle's post graduate certificate package, she was placed with a Youth Community Team where she worked in the Alcohol and Drug stream. This meant travelling out into the community to see clients who were disadvantaged both socially and financially and it was apparent that the areas they lived in were not high on the 'post earthquake' priority list for road repair and services. Michelle, visited many areas of government housing where she had to crawl her car around pot holes that were so big they threatened to swallow up her car.
Michelle's final placement was at the Youth Inpatient Unit (an acute unit for youth aged 16-18) where she could see the long term effects of the February 2011 earthquake and the countless aftershocks. Families were under immense stress as they waited for their houses to be assessed while young kids presented from a school where they had to escape the February 2011 earthquake through a mall where many bodies lay crushed.
As Christmas 2011 approached Christchurch as a city was tired, some staff were still struggling with grief, anxiety and loss. On Christmas Eve the Youth Inpatient Unit was almost full and one youth in seclusion was in the midst of an acute manic episode. While staff discussed the youth's situation at a handover, another earthquake struck. The room tilted and twisted and staff struggled to stay up on their feet. Michelle headed to the seclusion room and the youth was clearly very distressed. For a minute it looked as though the door to the seclusion room was jammed, but, it was forced open and a rag tag team of consultant and staff sat with the youth while the shaking continued.
After this latest situation had stabilised, Michelle and a department head opened an outside door and mustered some young people and their parents outside. Ironically, it was a brilliantly sunny day and we sat on the grass with kids and some of their family members as the ground continued to roll.
Michelle is currently working as a Registered Nurse at the Youth Inpatient Unit for the Specialist Mental Health Service that forms part of the Canterbury District Health Board in Christchurch New Zealand.
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