Burns specialist inspired by colleagues and community support

Within 24 hours of the 2002 Bali bombings, burns specialist Professor Fiona Wood stood in the emergency department of Royal Perth Hospital surrounded by injured patients.

Intensely focused, she moved from one to the next, assessing their chances of survival.

''The injuries were complex. It was burns, absolutely. But it was burns with shrapnel, with blast injuries,'' the former Australian of the Year recalled.

Her response wasn't automatic. It never is when you deal daily with human suffering, she said.

She was just concentrating 100 per cent on gaining control of the situation. Patients' breathing and circulation needed to be regulated. Their inflammation and infection risk needed to be managed, because, as a plastic surgeon focused on minimising scarring, ''there is no point having a good scar on a corpse''.

She likened burns treatment to a circus performer trying to keep plates spinning perilously on poles.


''You go running up and down, spinning plates,'' she said.

''Once they start to fall, it's, argh! Start running again.

''It's very much that kind of approach. There's a lot of factors that influence the total outcome.''

The hospital's burns unit treated 28 patients in the aftermath of the Kuta Beach bombings. The incident came soon after the implementation of a national disaster plan that was crucial in preparing the Australian burns community to respond to such an event.

''When Bali happened, we did it for real,'' Professor Wood said.

The tragedy shone a light on Australia's medical response and the Royal Perth's burns unit in particular, where a spray-on skin co-developed in the 1990s by Professor Wood was being used by the surgical teams. The procedure had been embedded in the hospital's practice since 1995 but its value in treating some of the Bali victims captured the public's imagination.

''It was the first time people heard of it widely,'' Professor Wood said.

''Our standard of care at the time - and still is - the use of cell-based therapies as part of, but not exclusively, our surgical repair.''

Professor Wood ran a private clinical practice while also working at the burns unit in 2002, but the Bali catastrophe focused her more resolutely on her life goals.

The day after the bombings, she called her clinic to advise she wouldn't be available for private consultations for at least six weeks.

After the victims began returning to their home countries and states, she knew she wanted to dedicate herself full-time to burns surgery.

Professor Wood said she was inspired by the response from her colleagues and the community.

''I thought, 'We live in a much better place than we give recognition to','' she said.

Professor Wood said the team worked relentlessly to save lives, but not to the point of collapse.

''I knew straight up this wasn't a sprint, this was a marathon,'' she said.

''It was a sustained effort over a period of time that by the nature of the situation, meant that there was hard work to be done, long hours, but not to the point of people passing out.''

She said the medical team learnt crucial lessons about treating burns victims, including the importance of controlling patients' airway and infection risk. AAP