Today is seven years since the devastating February earthquake in Christchurch in 2011. Like anyone here on that day or the surrounding months, it’s forever part of me. I’ve been reflecting on those seven years and wanted to share some of the lessons the quakes taught me, both in and out of the surgery.
The background and setting for this: I am from England and had never experienced an earthquake prior to September 2010. I moved to Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2006. I was living 55km east of Darfield, 5km east of Christchurch city centre and 5km from a soon to be significant spot in the port hills. Christchurch is 200km south of Kaikoura. In 2010 I was working at a practice about 2km from the city centre. My two boys were 1 and 3yrs olds, I was working 3 days a week.
The Darfield quake was 7.4 on the Richter scale, 30km deep, and it struck in the early hours of the morning September 4th 2010 and lasted close to a minute. It was my first earthquake, of all the responses to have I sat bolt upright and shouted “EARTHQUAKE”, my husband and I leapt from bed, ran to our children scooped them out of bed and cradled a child each in opposite door frames waiting for the house to stop moving. This was the first of 23’181 quakes to date that the region has endured.
Lesson 1: Don’t run around whilst the earth moves, unless to avoid immediate danger. Most injuries from that quake were people being nailed by falling furniture or stepping on broken glass whilst running around their own house. Also, door frames shouldn’t be your go to, lying on the floor against the side of the bed would’ve been better.
Following that earthquake, aftershocks were common, in Christchurch. We got used to just stopping and waiting for them to pass. In the surgery, it was amazing to discover I had ‘cat like’ reflexes for taking my foot off the pedal and withdrawing all pointy things from a mouth. I got used to excusing my pseudo tourettes, blurting ‘truck’ every time the surgery shook with a traffic not a quake. Aftershocks were a way of life, we all got pretty good at guessing the magnitude of them and in the surgery it became a game with the patient: guess after the quake, check online at the end of the appointment. We got pretty good at it. So much so, that I know I was pretty relaxed when the February quake started.
In February 2011, we had an intense, shallow, short 6.3 earthquake just 5km from my house. This was devastatingly powerful resulting in loss of lives, building and infrastructure collapse. It felt like another aftershock initially, but then it got nasty, much more violent than the quakes to date, then the glass started breaking, the bookshelves collapsed and lives changed. Thankfully I was home, my children close and safe. I remember the sound of hundreds of house alarms going off, the noise and constant wave of after shocks, the rush of water as the liquefaction came up. At work my colleagues evacuated, improvising what to do with half completed crown preps when the power was gone. Rushing to rescue their cars from advancing liquefaction and starting arduous journeys home.
Lesson 2 : Have a plan, have emergency supplies at home and at work. In the surgery we have a backpack with water, glow sticks, first aid stuff, a torch amongst other things. It’s someones job to grab this on our way out. At home, have an emergency bag, box etc, same again, water, tinned food, torch, radio and batteries etc. Have a plan for who’s getting the kids and a meeting place if you can’t get home. Have shoes you can walk in with you, and a jacket always, never let yourself have an empty tank of fuel.
The after math of this quake was survival mode, no water for 2 weeks, no power for days. On my side of town, no facilities. Supermarkets – gone, petrol stations-gone, roads and bridges damaged, laundromats gone. We were boiling water and cooking on camp stoves and the bbq, we had to travel to family for showers and laundry, we had to travel for water and groceries. Work was closed for a while till the building was cleared and we had water and power.
Lesson 3 : Your survival instinct will kick in, you’d be surprised how you just get on with it. How you handle it will ultimately affect how those around you handle it, especially your children. Turn off the news, this will only add to your anxieties.
Things settle a bit, dentistry as usual? Not quite, your patients are on edge, your staff are on edge. Patients don’t know what’s going on with their houses, some are out of work, some will have no water or sewage for up to a year, some have terrible tales to tell about being stuck in collapsed buildings or buildings where the stairwell collapsed and they sat through a night of aftershocks in those buildings waiting to be rescued. Some tell you of walking home through the city centre past the dead, the bleeding and the rescuers, all looking like ghosts, covered in dust. Making long walks home, not knowing what had happened to loved ones. Some made it out of the city centre only to be taken out by boulders that were bounced out of place by aftershocks. Nobody wants to have to come into the dentist but life goes on.
Lesson 4: If you weren’t aware before, the dental chair doubles for a counsellors couch. Relieving anxiety about dental treatment starts with uncovering all anxiety. Be careful not to onboard too much, there are harrowing stories to hear. Let patients talk, you maybe the only neutral, detached ears they encounter. They may desperately need to say things out loud that they want to keep from the loved ones they are trying to be strong for .
June 2011, just as we find a new normal, Christchurch is struck by two big quakes within an hour, the second being a powerful 6.4. Less destruction as so many at risk buildings were already cordoned off. The first was during our lunch break, my nurse had been out side and narrowly escaped a collapsing brick wall. The second, I was stood talking to a patient in the chair, when it struck we leant in and the patient, my nurse and I leant in and hugged each other tight until it stopped. We were shaken around, my shoe was flung across the room the whole dental chair was lifted across the room. I had a tense drive and walk to preschool to get my boys, avoiding liquefaction and praying I wouldn’t find a sink hole under the water. Once home, I had to dig our garage door free of liquefaction to get inside.
Lesson 5: The ongoing stress of living in prolonged fight or flight for aftershock after aftershock, quake after quake can be self destructive. The importance of establishing new post quake routines, good nutrition, exercise and sleep were crucial to enduring this. In the surgery we saw more and more stress related problems, more and more patients medicated for anxiety, depression and sleeping.
As 2011 turned to 2012 life continued, surgeries were repaired or pulled down. Seventy plus dentists were displaced from the CBD, the practice where I used to work was demolished. Dentists were sharing surgeries. Whole suburbs of houses were condemned and the land not allowed to be rebuilt on, patients were displaced from their dentists, many dentists retired overnight. Aftershocks came and went, some bigger than others but the biggest was yet to come. In November 2016, we were awoken by a long rolling earthquake, not a massive magnitude for Christchurch but “That wasn’t ours!” I said to my husband as he went back to sleep. Sure enough a 7.8 near Kaikoura, about 200km North of Christchurch. This was devastating for Kaikoura, for us it meant the tsunami sirens went off and hour later. Evacuating the family for the night. Thankfully nothing came of that and things for us in Christchurch have been relatively settled Earthquake wise since then.
I wasn’t going to write about this at all, people go through stuff everyday far worse than this. Natural disasters, war, terror, devastating accidents. You might live and work somewhere that earthquakes don’t apply to you but being prepared for a day where the power goes, the cell phones don’t work and having a plan for where you meet if you can’t get home, who’s getting the kids or other loved ones never goes amiss. Could you survive for a period of time without food, water and power? I hope you never have to, but it doesn’t take much to put to gather a small survival pack for home and work, to always have a pair of shoes you could walk miles in and a waterproof jacket in the boot of your car. Luckily for me my husband is super prepared about all this stuff, his favourite T shirt says “ The hardest thing about a zombie apocalypse would be pretending not to be excited.”
But seriously, if you have experienced or do experience something like this then remember to look after yourself, not just everyone else. Prioritise you needs, put your oxygen mask on first. Look after your headspace as much as your physical self. We’re not geared to endure ongoing stresses of this magnitude especially on top of an already stressful occupation. Stay safe, have a plan.
Today I am grateful for more than I can list here and my thoughts every February are with those suffering with grief and loss from that sunny summer’s day in 2011. Kia Kaha.