Heroic rescuer reveals why koala hospital had no choice but to put Lewis to sleep

It was a sad day at Koala Hospital Port Macquarie on Tuesday when they had to let go the koala that had been the face of the NSW bushfires after Lewis finally succumbed to his injuries.

Despite Lewis being a public favourite, his welfare needed to come first.

Grandmother, Toni Doherty, famously ripped off her shirt to save the screaming animal who was burning hot from the fires engulfing Long Flat, NSW. The footage of her dramatic rescue was broadcast around the globe.

Such was Ms Doherty’s connection to the koala, she named him after her grandson.

Moments after Lewis was euthanised on Tuesday, Ms Doherty and her husband Peter Doherty sat down with Yahoo News Australia to share what they had learnt from rescuing the 14-year-old mammal.

Toni Doherty rescues Lewis from bushfires near Port Macquarie. Source: Channel 9
Toni Doherty rescues Lewis from bushfires near Port Macquarie. Source: Channel 9

“The flames were really extensive,” Ms Doherty said.

“He didn’t look burnt at that time, which is surprising because it was just a complete fire wall.

“Then he started to come towards us and then I asked Peter to stop the car…

“So, I just jumped out and started running towards him… and just quickly thought take off my shirt to cover him.

“He was crying and calling out… it was really distressing.”

Lewis died after succumbing to his injuries sustained in the NSW bushfires. Source: Nine News
Lewis died after succumbing to his injuries sustained in the NSW bushfires. Source: Nine News

Rescuer says her final farewell to Lewis

The rescue was captured by television crews covering the work of the Rural Fire Service and Ms Doherty instructed them to alert the koala hospital they were on their way.

Once hydrated and in the car, Ms Doherty wrapped Lewis in a spare doona to keep him comfortable.

The retired nurse credits her tenure treating human patients for her calm disposition in the chaos of the situation.

“I didn’t have to think too much, it just became a natural instinct to react,” she said.

“I just didn’t want to bear the thought of him being left there.

“I’m sure other people would have done the same thing.”

Toni and Peter Doherty at the Koala Hospital Port Macquarie. Source: Yahoo News Australia / Michael Dahlstrom
Toni and Peter Doherty are thankful that other koalas have fared better than Lewis. Source: Yahoo News Australia / Michael Dahlstrom

Before Lewis was euthanised, Ms Doherty did go in and see him to say farewell.

“The staff had him comfortable, but it was the best thing for him,” she said.

“Because he wouldn’t have been able to climb the trees.

“He did really enjoy the leaves that were provided for him, so he was a stoic fellow.”

Hospital team busy working to save other koalas

The gut-wrenching news of the loss of Lewis came through as hospital staff were working hard to save another bushfire victim, a female koala Kate.

A grey-haired woman monitors a koala’s heart as it lies semi-lucid on a makeshift operating table.

Burn cream is applied to its red-raw paws.

“Okay, she’s starting to skip beats,” the woman warns.

The consensus at Koala Hospital Port Macquarie is to keep working, to keep treating Kate as she has a good chance of survival.

Crowded around a sterile table, five wise women change the koala’s bandages in relative silence so as to keep her calm.

Kate was named after the wife of the man who pulled her from the fires.

Rescuers get this honour as well as the satisfaction of giving an animal down on its luck a second chance.

A koala lies on a blue towel at Koala Hospital Port Macquarie. It has an oxygen mask on and is receiving treatment.
Kate the koala receives lifesaving surgery at Koala Hospital Port Macquarie. Source: Yahoo News Australia / Michael Dahlstrom
A koala is lifted in the air after surgery by a lady in a blue shirt at Koala Hospital Port Macquarie. It has vet wrap around its paws.
Kate the koala is carried back to her basket after her bandages are changed. Source: Yahoo News Australia / Michael Dahlstrom

The world has turned its eyes to the NSW coastal town of Port Macquarie and the fate of their bushfire devastated koalas.

Amid estimates that hundreds of koalas have been killed by the fires, serious questions are being asked about how to ensure future generations will be able to see the animals in the wild.

“She’s irregular as well,” says the volunteer treating Kate as she looks up from her stethoscope.

Through a glass wall, tourists snap photographs as her bandages are changed.

Koala hospital attracting tourists

Port Macquarie is normally a tourist hotspot, but the town has the air of a sleepy country town.

With the air thick with smoke many holiday makers have been scared away, it’s only the koala hospital that is abuzz with visitors.

Many at the care facility are working 12 hour shifts to care for the bushfire affected koalas.

The Koala hospital’s Scott Castle has been searching for koalas in fire affected bushland.

“The days are blurred at this stage,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

“There are no easy days.”

No one seems to know exactly how many koalas are in care – just that it’s over 50 and more are coming in every day.

There is a constant fluctuation and sadly not all survive the trauma of the flames.

Burn cream is applied to a koala after it lost the outer layer of skin from its nose. Source: Michael Dahlstrom / Yahoo News Australia
Burn cream is applied to a koala after it lost the outer layer of skin from its nose. Source: Michael Dahlstrom / Yahoo News Australia

As Kate came out of surgery and was placed back in her laundry basket, the skin covering her nose just wiped away.

Still, the volunteers were happy with her progress.

Hospital receives $1m in public donations

The koala hospital is largely run on public donations, and the volunteers have been overwhelmed with the incoming support.

A large koala in care clings to a pole. It's eyes are red from chlamydia. It has leaves to eat and an iron roof over its head. Gum trees can be seen in the distance.
The koala hospital treats koalas suffering from a range of diseases including chlamydia. Source: Michael Dahlstrom / Yahoo News Australia
Washing drying on a rotary clothes line at the koala hospital.
Caring for koalas involves a lot of mundane tasks like doing laundry. Source: Michael Dahlstrom / Yahoo News Australia

Whispers in the staff room briefly celebrate that they’ve surpassed $1 million in public donations to their GoFundMe page.

However, the reality is that those at the small facility are more focussed on the immediate situation – cleaning soiled towels and preparing food and medication.

Nobody prepared for ferocity of NSW bushfires

Koala hospital president Sue Ashton told Yahoo News Australia that if the hospital and other voluntary groups don’t care for koalas then nobody else will.

“These bushfires have just blown so many people away across all levels of society,” she said.

“We’ve just been caught and nobody was prepared.

“It’s just been frightening the ferocity of the fires and the damage that’s been done.

“We’re trying to pick up the pieces and do what we can but it’s almost like we’re trying to retrofit something that if we’d known was going to happen we could have planned.

“But you can only do what you can do.”

Sue Ashton at the koala park amongst the Colourbond pens.
Sue Ashton appears to work around the clock trying to help koalas. Source: Michael Dahlstrom / Yahoo News Australia
A double laundry basket with a sad looking koala in it. There are gum leaves to our right.
A koala wakes after being rescued from the bushfires. Source: Michael Dahlstrom / Yahoo News Australia

To prevent such a catastrophe from happening again, Ms Ashton has some simple advice.

“Learn, learn from everything we’re doing,” she said.

“They need to do back burning, they need to do it.

“Authorities have got to listen and take notice and step up and start to do something.”

‘Destroying their habitat too quickly’

Mr Doherty helped his wife rescue Lewis the koala, but has largely kept shy of the spotlight.

As his wife spoke about what she had learnt from helping Lewis from the flames, he appeared to be itching to share something.

“I’d like to say if I could if I could that if any good comes out of this, it’s increased awareness of the plight of our native animals,” Mr Doherty told Yahoo News Australia.

“We’re going to lose species in this country because we’re destroying their habitat too quickly for them to adapt.

Firemen give water to a koala. Fires burn in the background.
Fire and Rescue NSW team give water to a koala as they rescue it from fire in Jacky Bulbin Flat. Source: Reuters
A koala in care in a cage. Close up.
A koala in care after bushfires in Port Macquarie. Source: Michael Dahlstrom / Yahoo News Australia

“I think we need to be cognisant of that, and we need to be generous in donating to causes that will maintain habitat for our native animals.

He believes that while climate change is significant, it pales in comparison to the effect of a bulldozer clearing blocks of land.

“I’m not a particularly political person, but I think if all of us become aware of the issue of habitat loss, and species loss, we’ll all be wondering if our children will see species like (koalas) in the future,” he said.

“It’s a huge worry for this country.”

People wishing to donate to the koala hospital can do so via their website.

Funds will go towards building koala drinking stations to help heat affected koalas and establishing a koala ark breeding program to ensure the species’ survival in the wild.

The author, Michael Dahlstrom, is a registered wildlife carer in NSW and travelled to Port Macquarie as a guest of the local council.

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