Dr Stan Siejka Inquest – Busy Helicopter “Delayed Treatment”

The findings of the Coronial inquest into the death of Tasmanian neurologist Dr Stanley Siejka have recently been published in The Press.

Tasmanian Dr Siejka died in a fall whilst skiing at the Porters Ski Area in South Island, NZ in September 2009.

Dr Siejka’s death was a major blow for medical services in Tasmania, Australia, where he had almost singlehandedly provided its neurology services. He was a highly regarded professional and his loss was keenly felt by his colleagues, patients, family and friends.

His death was one of a number of fatal skiing accidents that have occurred in New Zealand.

An experienced heli-skiing guide with Alpine Guides was killed in an avalanche in Methven on 14August. last year Almost a month earlier on 24 July an Australian tourist, Llynden Riethmuller, died in an avalanche whilst skiing with the same company, in the same area. And on 4 August Ryan Manu Campbell, a snow boarder,  died after an avalanche swept him into a gully near the Coronet Peak skifield.

According to a report of the inquest which was published on Stuff, a 30 minute helicopter delay resulted in delayed treatment for Dr Siejka who may not have died if circumstances had been different, emphasis ours:

…In findings released yesterday, regional coroner Richard McElrea recommended St John ambulance review its procedures, as there was an estimated 30-minute delay in flying paramedics to the injured Tasmanian…

Members of the ski patrol went to help Siejka, who was conscious and talking immediately after the fall, and an emergency call was made at 12.52pm. However, Garden City’s rescue helicopter was already at the Mt Hutt skifield and another had to be prepared and staffed before it could be flown to Porters. It did not lift off until 1.40pm, arriving at the ski area at 2.10pm.

In other words it took an hour and twenty minutes for the helicopter to arrive after the call was made, time that was vital to Dr Siejka’s survival. Pathologist Martin Sage told the inquest that he would have had a “greater chance of survival had he been delivered to hospital sooner.”

The problem is that there isn’t enough equipment to go round all of the ski areas, mostly because of the expense entailed:

Alan Goudge, operations manager overseeing St John’s three emergency communication centres, yesterday told The Press it was impossible to respond any more quickly with the staff and equipment available.

With one helicopter and two paramedics already at Mt Hutt, Goudge estimated a 30-minute delay while another machine was prepared and medical staff found.

Funding was only available for one helicopter and two paramedics on permanent standby, Goudge said.

“If there’s a requirement for us to have a second machine available with support paramedics, then that’s a funding matter because these things are very expensive to deploy,” he said..read the full report here

Given the large numbers of people present on the ski slopes, and the high number of serious harm incidents on NZ ski fields, we are shocked to hear that only one helicopter is kept on standby. Perhaps the coroners findings will spur on the establishment of more facilities.

Tourism plays a significant role in the New Zealand economy. For the year end March 2009, tourism directly and indirectly contributed $15 billion (or 9.1%) to New Zealand’s GDP (excluding GST and import duties). International tourist expenditure over this period accounted for $9.3 billion or 16.4% of New Zealand’s total export earnings. Surely it wouldn’t be too much to expect better protection and facilities for those tourists?

Our thoughts and condolences are with Dr Siejka’s family and friends, this must be a very difficult time for them.

Adventure Tourism Deaths in New Zealand

According to information released as part of the Dept of Labour’s investigation into adventure tourism safety the highest activity area for serious harm accident notifications in New Zealand  is ski fields, followed by luge, horse trekking and ATV tour accidents link. Many skiers venture off-piste and there have been a number of serious falls from height onto rocks recently.

At present no specific legislation covers the health and safety of participants in adventure tourism activities in New Zealand.

A wide ranging review of adventure tourism in New Zealand found gaps in safety, following which  recommendations were made to introduce a registration scheme (it stopped short of licensing) and mandatory auditing of adventure tourism operators, this has yet to be implemented.

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