Chasing Answers – Life and Volunteer Medical Work in Papua New Guinea (PNG)

GUEST ARTICLE: The first time I took a blood sample, my hands trembled. It was obvious that I was jamming the needle in too tightly, but the elderly lady crouched opposite me simply closed her eyes and tried to smile. The small children clustered around the back of the rickety wooden table that was our treatment centre giggled, and it suddenly wasn’t just the heat that was making me sweat…

Papua New Guinea Flag
Papua New Guinea Flag photo credit: kabl1992

Running medical clinics in rural villages in Papua New Guinea requires the acceptance of certain compromises.

It means accepting that villagers will treat health care as an opportunity for community participation, having animated discussions about the complaints of the person being treated.

It means accepting that physical examinations will need to take place wherever privacy permits, even if that means using the back of a car or a woven screen of grass.

It requires a constant balancing act between the desire to deliver high quality medical care, and the sheer weight and volume of human need in villages deprived of alternative services.

These are not lessons they teach you during orientation in the air-conditioned offices of Australian Volunteers International in Melbourne.

They tell you about insect borne diseases and crime, culture and language, but they do not tell you what it feels like to drive away from a village knowing that you’ve seen less than half the people who spent hours walking to attend your clinic.

They cannot tell you what to say to a nurse who has just had to tell a mother that she and her husband have passed the HIV virus onto her child.

For me, these stories have come to represent the contradictions and heartbreak of a place that is rapidly starting to feel like home. It is double digit malnutrition figures in a land of abundant natural food sources.

It is the challenge of survival in urban settlements while the millions in royalties from PNG’s mines are squandered by politicians. It is a health system so fractured that the women of this generation are more likely to die in child birth than that of their mothers.

Telling these stories, sharing these stories, shouting these stories is for me one of the only ways of making sense of bewildering, intoxicating, devastating reality of living and working in a foreign country. ..

By the roadside a garbage truck is being chased by young men.

They grab at the truck as it skews wildly from side to side. One, more agile than most, makes it onto the back. He kicks once, scattering garbage bags over the dusty ground. They barely touch the ground before being ripped apart by the waiting crowd. People die in these fights, tempers flaring over the waste of wealthier parts of the city.

Sometimes when I lie awake in the middle of the night, I think about all these things. I think about the work we do each day, and I wonder what it means for the lives of the people with whom we work.

I try to imagine that it part of a process of moving forward for Papua New Guinea, of building a future for the giggling toddlers who cluster around our tables when we run clinics in the village. It makes it easier to get up each morning if you can believe that change could be just around the corner…

This guest article has been written by Dylan Tovey. Dylan is in Papua New Guinea (PNG) doing volunteer work with a local medical charity. He is supported by Australian Volunteers and Brilliant Prints.

If you’ve travelled somewhere off the beaten track, can write well and have good quality photos I encourage you to contact me and I’ll consider publishing your travel diary here including generous attribution and links back to your website as thanks for your contribution

4 thoughts on “Chasing Answers – Life and Volunteer Medical Work in Papua New Guinea (PNG)”

  1. Thank you Dylan and Neerav, I really enjoyed reading your article.

    I’ve spent a little time in PNG and can relate to what you said. I also read an interesting book recently that you may enjoy. It’s called ‘Twenty Chickens for a Saddle’ by Robyn Scott.

    It’s about a girl growing up with her white family in Botswana. Her father, the flying doctor had to deal with the same issues, namely poverty, a huge number of patients to attend to and the rise of HIV/AIDS.

  2. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for the suggestion – I’m starved of good literature at the moment – so I will definitely follow it up.

    What were you doing in PNG? Work or pleasure?

  3. It is truly a challenge of survival in an urban environment that makes these issues so apt and relevant.

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