There’s children playing in the water and laughing, women washing their pots and clothes in the stream as they chat amicably in groups. Everything happens at a slow leisurely pace.
This was where we stayed during our patrol to Lipek. What a stark contrast to the reality of life in rural PNG, which was made obvious as soon as we started venturing into remote villages.
The team was enthusiastic and energetic, and we stopped at villages along the way to let people know we were going to be at their local health centre for the following three days. Consequently, hundreds of people attended our clinics. We all worked flat out every day and often had no time for lunch, making our evening meal of rice, greens and tinned mackerel extremely appetising!
In my role I tried to see patients with the health workers at my side in order to do some case based teaching. However, owing to the high numbers of patients, this became difficult, although some teaching was achieved.
Maternal and child health nurse did approximately 200 pap smears and treated many women for STDs.
Physio saw hundreds of patients with back and knee pains, teaching them how to lift properly and do simple rehabilitative exercises.
Dentists visited local schools and screened hundreds of children, as well as treated adults at the clinics. Unfortunately severe dental decay is very common, necessitating tooth extraction in many cases.
Lab technician did hundreds of syphilis tests and haemoglobin checks, highlighting the huge prevalence of severe anaemia and syphilis in all communities we visited. Unfortunately a shortage of iron tablets and benzathine penicillin makes treating these conditions very difficult. The technician also tested for TB and diagnosed two new cases which will be followed up for treatment.
HIV & STD worker gave ‘awareness’ talks to school students, community groups and patients waiting on verandas. She showed educational DVDs to several enthralled groups, which afterwards resulted in more than 200 people presenting for HIV testing. Of these, fortunately none were positive, but typically those who are at most risk do not come for testing.
At Lipek we assisted with difficult delivery of a baby. The mother and baby both survived, and as a token of appreciation the baby was named ‘Adi’!
At Manga we treated a newborn babe who was quite unwell after birth. The babe made a rapid recovery and was named “Jenny”!
Both situations highlighted the huge difficulties health workers face in these isolated areas with limited facilities. All too often people die of conditions that could be cured with a few more pieces of simple equipment (such as suction and oxygen), a more reliable supply of essential drugs, and some more training.
Most of the health centres do not have any running water – water is fetched from a tank or river nearby. Some have limited solar power but all too often, solar panels are stolen, leaving them with no power at all. Immunisations expire and night time births are laboured under torchlight.
We saw many people with malaria, which fortunately is generally being treated very well now. There were huge numbers of women with severe anaemia, some of whom were pregnant and therefore at serious risk of dying in childbirth if their anaemia is not corrected. Many children were also anaemic, mostly due to their frequent bouts of malaria combined with dietary deficiencies.
I experienced, firsthand, the difficulties involved in transporting patients to Kavieng for treatment at the hospital. We saw many patients in need of surgery for hernia repair or excision of skin tumours, but unfortunately none could afford to travel to Kavieng. There were many patients with skin infections and respiratory infections. Some presented very ill with fever yet tested negative for malaria, in which case finding the cause of the infection was difficult without any ability to investigate. Treatment, therefore, was based on a mixture of guesswork, experience and intuition!
There were many patients with disabilities being cared for by dedicated families with very little support and almost no availability of aides such as wheelchairs etc. The fortitude of these people puts us Westerners to shame.
Our boat trip to Silur was calm and cool, with beautiful mountain vistas which are not seen so well when travelling by road. Even the ‘counting the waves’ beach landing technique went smoothly.
At the end of a tiring day, we enjoyed a ‘was was’ in the cold clear river water. If it was dark, we washed ‘like Eve’ hoping there were no ‘Adams’ nearby. We all slept well, despite sleeping on mats on cements floors!
Staff treated me to a singing session one night – beautiful strong voices in glorious harmony. It was a very good sleep medicine!
They all looked after me very well – advising of the best way to wash wearing a ‘lap lap’ (sarong), making sure I was safe if I had to use the outdoor toilet pit late at night, and trying to teach me Pidgin. My attempts at saying many of the words were a source of great amusement.
The team enjoyed their experience, and were proud of everyone’s achievements on patrol. They were dedicated and conscientious, working hard without complaint. I’m looking forward to our next patrol!