Olding sisters’ work was to treat patients, train health workers and help install water and power for rural hospital in remote Papua New Guinea
Melanie Olding (32), an experienced doctor based in Darwin NT, and her sister Belinda Olding (30), a talented construction project manager based in Newcastle NSW, are in New Ireland for a five-month volunteer assignment at Namatanai District Hospital.
The 56-bed Namatanai Hospital, which is isolated and has no running water or reliable power despite seeing over 66,000 patients a year.
“It’s every volunteer doctor’s dream – a rundown, understaffed old hospital with plenty of challenges to overcome, with a team of enthusiastic hardworking staff and a mining company financier [Newcrest Mining] to help build it up into a facility to be proud of,” says Melanie, who is under no pretence of what lies ahead having previously worked in PNG’s Milne Bay and Wataluma and Australia’s remote Northern Territory.
PNG has the worst state of health in the Pacific, ranks lower than Bangladesh and Kenya on the UN’s Human Development Index, and has the second highest maternal mortality rate (MMR) in Asia Pacific. Tuberculosis and malaria are widespread and New Ireland is one of the most malarious provinces of PNG.
“We’ve never done any aid work but have travelled quite a lot overseas together,” says Belinda. “Mum and Dad are hesitantly encouraging of it. They have the usual concerns about the dangers that get portrayed in the media. Hopefully they’ll have nothing to worry about.”
Melanie will be the sole doctor at Namatanai Hospital, which is located four hours by road from the provincial capital Kavieng. She’ll help treat patients and train staff, as well as conduct health patrols with provincial staff to outlying health centres in need of clinical support. Namatanai District is rural and remote, with most locals being subsistence farmers or employed on nearby coconut and palm oil plantations.
“I can’t wait to get started! Meeting the community and getting to know the people I’ll be living and working with is my first priority,” says Melanie. “I’m excited about the teaching aspect of the job – I see a part of my role as advocacy and education to help improve the resources available long-term in Namatanai – and I’m looking forward to being involved in the treatment of so many tropical diseases.”
Melanie’s professional experience ranges from working at Royal Darwin Hospital and remote Aboriginal health services to stints treating injured skiers at Perisher and touring cyclists in Timor Leste.
However she concedes that remoteness with aeromedical retrieval services is a very different situation to a two day walk with only a wheelbarrow and a good mate to push you – which is what she saw the last time she was in PNG.
‘Little’ sister Belinda (she’s 6’1’!’) has plenty to do too. Primarily she’ll help the Namatanai District Hospital Taskforce to start and complete emergency remedial work being funded by Newcrest Mining under the tax credit scheme.
This includes constructing a new back-up power generator, fixing a water supply system and installing a 9,000 litre water tank. Currently hospital staff fetch water from the river for cleaning and drinking, whilst babies born between dusk and dawn are delivered via lantern or torchlight.
Belinda, who most recently worked on the $800 million Hunter Expressway Alliance as Contract Administrator and is halfway through her MBA, has extensive construction project skills including planning, procurement and implementation.
Her portfolio further features projects with Hansen Yuncken, Broad Construction, Kelly & Rigby Builders and Infinity Construction. Needless to say, she’s packed her own builders’ toolkit, along with plenty of sunscreen and mosquito repellent.
“Integrating into the community will be critical to what we are trying to achieve. We hope to work and live closely with the local residents to gain a deeper understanding of the culture and people,” says Belinda. “The local mine will also be vital to the financial and resourcing elements of the project. As it is a remote location a lot of things will need to be shipped in such as generators, water tanks etc.”
The Olding sisters have much to offer the people of PNG, and look forward to what they will learn in return. Originally from Sydney’s North Shore and graduates of SCECGS Redlands, both are well travelled, possess multiple degrees, are accomplished athletes (Melanie: rowing, skiing, off-road cycling, swimming ; Belinda: snowboarding, scuba diving, ski patrolling) and keen photographers.