Day one was ground breaking – 23 Feb 2011, the day after the big Christchurch earthquake. Today is day 800 of what I lovingly refer to as the Papanui campus of University of Otago Christchurch. For my children it’s just the office out the front of the house where their father works. For me, it used to be my workshop & study. Once upon a time it was computer and telephone free! That all changed at midday on 22 February 2011 when I and my colleagues were unceremoniously thrown out of the University of Otago Christchurch building (you know the big building at the front of Christchurch hospital with the glass facade with the words “Research Saves Lives” written across it). My ICU, ED and other medico colleagues went to work immediately, while the rest of us watched the first of the injured arrive at the hospital on the back of utes and sitting in the boots of cars. I hung around until I was sure my students and staff could all get home. After an hour or so I walked home – first across Hagley park with hundreds of others exiting the city. I chatted with a woman who got out of Ballantynes and another who escaped the carnage in Cashel Street. A house not far from my own had partially collapsed – I went on to the property and called out to see if anyone was there. I got hold of a neighbour who told me that the people who live there both work somewhere in town. I prayed that they would be OK as they were in for a shock when they returned home. Eventually I get home. My family, including the dog, were not there – they had gone looking for me. All the while the ground kept shaking. My family returned and we rejoiced in each other’s presence.
The next day I opened my office thinking I may have to work at home for a few days. My PhD student Dr Maryam Nejat was in touch. She got home OK, but she was at a loss what to do about her thesis. It was on her computer at work. She’d been due to submit it within a month. Fortunately, I had a laptop at home with a reasonably recent draft. Maryam came around and we got to work, the first meeting at the Papanui campus.
When the quake hit I’d been in the middle of submitting an article to a journal for consideration for publication. This too had to be retrieved and resubmitted somehow. My colleagues involved in lab research suddenly had their facilities unavailable. They were very concerned about the welfare of the animals. My somewhat minimal role as group manager took on a new dimension. Fortunately, those I work with were so very competent. We discovered the animals had taken great priority and people were in the building feeding and caring for them all the while nobody else went inside.
As we watched the news, prayed for rescues, and held our breath every time the earth moved my thoughts turned to what else I could do. I was fortunate to live in an area relatively unharmed, apart from the one house I mentioned. The little liquefaction in the road around the corner had quickly been moved off the footpaths into the gutters and I’d hopped on the roof the neighbour’s house to remove chimney bricks threatening to fall on those below. No medical skills, no search and rescue skills, no great shakes with a shovel (besides, my family didn’t want me out of sight for a while), I did what I could and went into work, 5 metres from the front door. After all, Acute Kidney Injury is a great risk in crush victims and while I couldn’t help the people in the Christchurch quake, maybe I’ll do something for other quake victims in the future.
Messages started to come through from the Dean. The building had been yellow stickered for “remedial work”, but it looked like we would only be out of the building for about 4-8 weeks. In the meantime, we were allowed to enter the building to retrieve essential items (computer!).
After 7 weeks (mid April) we were told occupancy of our offices and labs may not be till July. So I beefed up my broadband allowance. Then we were told September (2011 remember!). After that predictions no longer came. The first staff went back into the building in November 2012, 21 months after the quake. Nearly all academics (I may be the last left working elsewhere?) are back in the building now, the labs are open, the students are at lectures, the library is moving back in next week, and the Dean’s office should be back in about a month.
So, day 800 and lots to celebrate at the Papanui Campus: Two PhD theses, 15 journal articles submitted and accepted, 1 book chapter, an ED & ICU study completed, another ICU study data collected, a lab study managed to completion in temporary location, new collaborations with colleagues in Germany, USA, Canada and Auckland, and a couple of online conferences. An additional bonus has been the joy of working from home and seeing my family throughout the day (my children are Home educated). Not so thrilling is the dog coming and nudging me when he wants some attention. Scariest moment was the large “after shock” in June 2011 where I held on to the monitor, ducked my head under the desk, and my group director on Skype from Sydney watched my printer fly off a filing cabinet behind me. Perhaps the most difficult thing for a scientist working alone is the sense of isolation. Email and Skype only partially ameliorate that. I also make regular trips into town to visit colleagues and drink coffee. Of the writing of blogs there is no end, but I have found participating in a couple of online blogging communities has kept me from having too narrow a focus. How many more days there are for the Papanui Campus I do not know. Little did I know when I built this Versatile sleepout 12 years ago that it would become a small outpost of Otago University. I don’t expect it will make the official history of the university, but it is now indelibly part of my personal history and I am very grateful that I have been able to work here.