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Pioneering paediatric Intensive Care Medicine in New Zealand

Department of Critical Care Medicine, Auckland City Hospital, Auckland, New Zealand


The origin of New Zealand’s paediatric intensive care medicine lay in the formal establishment of Auckland Hospital’s Central Respiratory Unit within the hospital’s Infectious Diseases Unit (December 1958). It was initially established for the care of critically ill children, chiefly with airway and respiratory disorders or tetanus. Senior Specialist Anaesthetist Matthew Spence soon took charge, his first annual report (1960) briefly describing six children among 19 admissions and another six consulted on elsewhere. Rapid build-up of paediatric admissions—36 in 1963 becoming 104 in 1969—is detailed through Dr Spence’s admirable annual reports for that period, which also provide the evidence of his organisational brilliance and personal commitment to development of the unit. Treatment for children, approximately a third of all admissions, soon included management of brain swelling from meningitis, intractable convulsions, traumatic brain injury, etc. Critically ill children were occasionally flown into Auckland; others were cared for regionally as further intensive care units developed throughout New Zealand. Successive additions to medical staffing gradually resulted in four full-time intensivists after Dr Spence’s retirement in 1983. Dr James Judson computerised record-keeping from 1984 and developed a large database, containing details of children with numbers approaching 2000. At the end of 1991, the (now) Department of Critical Care Medicine completed its paediatric role over three decades, with care of children passing to a paediatric intensive care unit in the new Auckland paediatric hospital (soon to be called “Starship”). Regional intensive care units still make a substantial contribution to paediatric intensive care countrywide.

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