As It Happens

A tissue bank in Ohio sent 300 square feet of skin to New Zealand volcano victims

How do you get 278,709 square centimetres of human skin to the other end side of the world? You pack it in dry ice and and ship it in the mail. 

The COO of Community Tissue Services says they can help because donors 'give us their last, final gift'

Family and friends of victims of the White Island eruption gather in Whakatane, New Zealand, on Friday. (John Borren/Getty Images)

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How do you send human skin to the other end side of the world? You pack it in dry ice and ship it in the mail. 

That's how the folks at Community Tissue Services in Kettering, Ohio, were able to get 300 square feet (278,709 square centimetres) of donated skin to the badly burned survivors of a volcanic eruption in New Zealand. 

That's enough skin to cover about 15 human bodies from head to toe. 

"Our team usually will see on the news anything that's a national disaster and we immediately will get ready for emergency shipments," Diane Wilson, chief operating officer at the non-profit skin bank, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"And in this case, that's exactly what happened."

Community Tissue Services sent shipments of skin in boxes with dry ice. (Community Tissue Services)

On Dec. 9, a volcano erupted on the popular tourist site of White Island — known in Maori as Whakaari — killing 18 people and leaving several others badly burned. 

A chief medical officer said Friday that 15 people remained in burn units in New Zealand hospitals Friday, including 11 whose conditions are "very critical." Thirteen Australians who were burned have returned to their home country for treatment.

Some of the survivors have burns covering more than 90 per cent of their bodies.

"This number of burns at one time is certainly unprecedented in New Zealand, and it's unprecedented in most countries in the world," Dr. John Kenealy of Middlemore Hospital in Auckland told reporters last week, according to the Washington Post.

A meshed skin graft from Community Tissue Services in Kettering, Ohio. (Community Tissue Services)

The doctors treating those victims are desperate for human skin, which they use as temporary grafts. This involves surgically transplanting a layer of skin to cover an open wound.

"It will keep the fluids in and it will keep the infection out," Wilson said. "And it works very well as a natural dressing for the body."

Normally, a doctor would use a patient's own skin from another part of their body to make a graft. But when burns cover more than half of a person's body, that's not an option. 

When it comes to skin donations, the donor and the recipient don't need to share a blood type — or even an ethnicity. After all, the grafts are temporary.

"It does not matter the colour of the skin or the age of the donor," Wilson said. "Our donors are actually all the way up to the age of 80."

In this satellite image taken and released on Dec. 11 by Maxar Technologies, steam rises from the volcano on White Island off the coast of Whakatane. (Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies via AP)

The Community Tissue Services shipment is one of several skin donations heading to New Zealand from the U.S. and elsewhere. 

Canada's Héma-Québec told The Canadian Press it is prepared to send 25,000 square centimetres of skin, which is roughly a quarter of its supply.

None of this would be possible without donors, says Wilson. Her facility has provided skin shipments for several emergencies worldwide, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"Our donor families are just very special. You know, they give us their last, final gift," she said.

"We are honoured with that right and that responsibility and that accountability to that donor family to make sure that we maximize that gift."


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Canadian Press. Interview with Diane Wilson produced by Kate Swoger. 

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