It was the most devastating tropical cyclone to ever strike the Southern Hemisphere.
When Cyclone Winston made landfall in Fiji on 20 February, it took more than 40 lives, and left a trail of destruction affecting 350,000 people.
Australian nurse Mistee Brett said the workload had been heavy, with most patients being children and the elderly.(Supplied: National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre)
Schools, buildings, crops and people were all indiscriminately targeted.
After a request for help by the Fijian Government, the first team of about 20 Australian medical staff — nurses, doctors and paramedics — arrived a few days after the tropical storm hit to assist the local response.
The ABC spoke with members of the Australian Medical Assistance Team (AusMAT) as they headed home after two weeks of medical outreach work in Fiji.
Darwin nurse Mistee Brett was on her first deployment with AusMAT, a team assembled by the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre in Darwin.
Ms Brett described the local response to Cyclone Winston as astounding.
“The experiences of walking into villages of people who have nothing and them offering you their lunch for the day. That just — it still blows me away that they could be so generous despite having nothing,” Ms Brett said.
The medical teams are sourced from around Australia and have already treated more than 1,000 local people, but with the scale of devastation, it is not a job for the faint-hearted.
“The workload’s been heavy. We have seen, I think, in about the last four days, roughly about 160 patients, the majority of whom have been children and the elderly,” Ms Brett said.
She also described the difficulty of reaching certain areas due to debris and blocked roads.
The first deployment based themselves in the Rakiraki region to assist the local hospital, before heading out to more remote villages.
Access cut off by fallen debris, doctors arrive by foot
Dr Rob Cardwell with a patient in Fiji. (Supplied: National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre)
Australian doctor Dr Rob Cardwell said the only way to reach some areas was by foot.
“We’ve driven probably about an hour or so north of Koravu, the main town, half of which is sort of on gravel roads, across a couple of creek crossings. To get to this settlement we’ve had a couple of kilometres’ walk through the bush,” Dr Cardwell said from the field.
The Australian team was keen to emphasise its supporting role, and said it was the Fijian Health Department and local staff who had taken the lead.
Dr Rob Cardwell with Fijian health officials and patients under a makeshift shelter.(Supplied: National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre)
“In these mobile teams and in the hospital, we’ve been working very closely with our Fijian colleagues, very much learning from them as to how they manage cases locally,” Dr Cardwell said.
However, the sheer scale of the category five storm overwhelmed the country’s medical services, and disease is setting in.
“We’re starting to see some of the communicable diseases, so some soft tissue infections, minor injuries now but with infections associated. There’s some respiratory tract infections starting as well,” Dr Cardwell said.
Many local staff have been working since the cyclone hit last month, despite losing their own homes.
Giving staff a break has also been part of the job of the Australians.
“The experience has been so rewarding. The people are just amazing, so resilient and happy and thankful for what we’re doing, which makes it really easy for us,” Ms Brett said.
A second and final team of 15 has now arrived in Fiji to relieve medical staff for at least another week.
Koro Island residents contemplate the impact of Cyclone Winston. (ABC News: Brant Cumming)
Houses destroyed by Cyclone Winston on Fiji’s Koro Island. (ABC News: Brant Cumming)
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The cyclone caused widespread damage around the town of Rakiraki in Fiji’s Ra Province. (ABC: Brant Cumming)
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Fijians search through a home destroyed by Tropical Cyclone Winston in Rakiraki. (ABC News: Brant Cumming)
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Houses destroyed by Tropical Cyclone Winston in Rakiraki, Fiji. (ABC News: Brant Cumming)
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The roof of a primary school in Fiji is torn away as a result of Cyclone Winston. (ABC News: Brant Cumming)
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Cyclone Winston caused widespread flooding across Fiji. (Supplied: Fijian Government)
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One of the many buildings in Fiji destroyed by Cyclone Winston. (ABC News)
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An aerial shot of the destruction from Cyclone Winston in Tavua, Northern Fiji. (Facebook: Fijian Government)
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A man stands in front of a house damaged by Tropical Cyclone Winston. (Supplied: Joe Yaya)
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Residents on Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island, assess the damage in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Winston. (Supplied: Joe Yaya)
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A child climbs through the remains of a home destroyed by Tropical Cyclone Winston. (Supplied: Joe Yaya)
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A boat washed up onto the shore in Vani, Fiji. (Facebook: Fijian Government)
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The walls of a house that has lost its roof fall open in Fiji. (Supplied: Joe Yaya)
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Destroyed houses and bridges in Lomaloma, Fiji after Cyclone Winston. (Facebook: Fijian Government)
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Children gather outside a school building after Tropical Cyclone Winston flattened homes in Fiji. (Supplied: Joe Yaya)
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A village on Koro Island was completely destroyed by Cyclone Winston. (Facebook: Fiji Government)
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A power pole leans on its side after Tropical Cyclone Winston hits Fiji. (Supplied: Joe Yaya)
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Police and disaster management crews in Fiji begin road clearing operations. (Supplied: Joe Yayas)
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Villagers have been bathing in rivers after Tropical Cyclone Winston cut off their water supply. (Supplied: Joe Yaya)
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A man wears a hardhat as he stands on the roof of a damaged house in Fiji. (Supplied: Joe Yaya)
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Homes were flattened by the cyclone. (Supplied: Joe Yaya)
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Clothes hang outside a home which has had its roof torn off by Tropical Cyclone Winston. (Supplied: Joe Yaya)
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Trees uprooted at the Hilton resort in Danarau, Viti Levu. (Supplied: Jeremy Bree)
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Nadi, one of the biggest cities on Fiji’s main island Viti Levu, has begun to feel the impact of Cyclone Winston (Supplied: Neil Price)
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Cars drive through floodwaters in Nadi after Tropical Cyclone Winston. (Supplied: Fiji Government)
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Damaged, roofless house in Lautoka after Tropical Cyclone Winston ravages Fiji. (Facebook: Fijian Government)
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Fallen trees cover a house in the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Winston. (Supplied: Naziah Ali)
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A family digs through what is left of their home in Ba, the morning after category five Tropical Cyclone Winston hit Fiji. (Supplied: Naziah Ali)
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Seini Cawai with her family at an evacuation centre in Ba, Fiji after their home was lost in Tropical Cyclone Winston. (Supplied: Naziah Ali)
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In the aftermath of Cyclone Winston, staff clean inside Fiji’s Sofitel hotel. (ABC News: Matthew Karstunen)
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Broken trees braches cover the shoreline in Fiji following Tropical Cyclone Winston. (ABC News: Matthew Karstunen)
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Broken powerlines, tree branches and other debris lie on the ground in Ba following Cyclone Winston in Fiji. (Supplied: Naziah Ali)
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Crowds gather to collect supplies at Nausori Supermarket in Suva, Fiji as they wait for Cyclone Winston to hit. (Supplied: Kris Prassad)
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Trees down as Cyclone Winston begins its approach on Viti Levu in Fiji. (Supplied: Joe Yaya)
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Guests at the Sheraton Hotel in Nadi are evacuated to the ballroom in the midst of Cyclone Winston. (Supplied)
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Sandbags are washed away during a tropical cyclone at the Uprising Beach Resort, west of Fiji’s capital Suva. (Facebook: Uprising Beach Resort)
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