Team work is everything for a Corowa husband and wife who visit Papua New Guinea to provide medical assistance and education on health issues such as malaria and diabetes.
Doctor Bruce Slonim and Gayle, a teacher, recently returned from their fourth volunteer experience with Australian Doctors International (ADI).
ADI is a not-for-profit, non-government aid organisation with no religious or political affiliations.
The ADI program is co-funded by the New Ireland Provincial Government and the Australian Government, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Its vision is to work for a healthier Papua New Guinea by providing healthcare to rural and remote areas of Papua New Guinea through its development programs.
The key to achieving this is the focus on reducing preventable diseases through public health programs, health education and health promotion.
As part of the ADI team, Bruce and Gayle were stationed in Kavieng in the Province of New Ireland, situated to the north east of the mainland and close to the equator, where they volunteered to upskill the local workforce and ‘treat and train’ while there.
New Ireland has a population of 190,000 of whom most live remotely and do not have access to the sole hospital on the island in Kavieng.
There is little infrastructure, with only one main road servicing only half the main New Ireland.
The rest of the villagers live on islands or remote villages accessible by boat only.
Most villages do not have power, no means of communication and none have running water.
Their food is farmed or caught and it is a subsistence economy.
Bruce’s work focused on improving major health issues faced by Papua New Guineans like maternal mortality, tuberculosis, malaria and diabetes.
Gayle worked with the patrol members, developing more effective community education.
The couple worked in their respective field for 35 years in Corowa and retired from permanent work about seven years ago.
“We looked at working in a different way because our children had grown up and had moved away to university, so we looked at working remotely,” Gayle said.
The couple recently returned from Papua New Guinea only to head off to work in the Northern Territory where Bruce is a locum and Gayle teaches at one of the schools.
“We heard about Papua New Guinea and so for the last five years we have spent a considerable amount of time there, almost two years,” Gayle said.
“I feel we are making a difference over there.
“We have evolved with the organisation as well, so instead of just presenting clinically we are now realising that education is more important.
“It has stimulated our careers and made us look at our careers in a completely different light; we have to expect the unexpected.”
One of the most rewarding aspects of their volunteer experience has been the opportunity for the couple to work together.
“For the first time Bruce and I are working together and we work well as a team. We are also working with these teams of professionals over there and without ADI they wouldn’t be able to go out and visit these villages, they wouldn’t be able to get there,” Gayle said.
“We feel privileged to be a part of a team of hard working professionals who all have a great respect for each other, working towards a safer and healthier New Ireland.”
The couple have enjoyed working with the local national people with limited resources.
“It has really opened our eyes and we are impressed with how dedicated they are with virtually nothing,” Gayle said.
“We are learning every day and there’s never a dull moment.”
ADI’s role in New Ireland is to conduct two in-service programs a year and to facilitate the delivery of outreach health patrols and the upskilling of health workers.
ADI were instrumental in getting these patrols restarted.
The patrol team consists of health professionals from the Kavieng hospital, dentists, clinical nurses, physiotherapist, family planning nurse, an eye nurse, the ADI doctor and an educational officer.
Volunteering comes with its many rewards for those who put their hand up and for this Corowa couple they were able to experience a new culture and had the opportunity to live in a village with the many villagers.
A low point was when they both caught dengue fever but being exposed to tropical diseases allowed Bruce to further his interest in tropical medicine.
For two weeks at a time the couple set out to visit a region in the province, providing medical services and education to the rural health centres and their staff and to the communities.
“We must take with us all our medical equipment, our food and personal items,” Gayle said.
“The rural Health Centres are often understaffed and lack many basic supplies.
“The travel is arduous. Long boat rides are often followed by difficult landings on the beaches.
“If there are roads the bridges are often collapsed requiring many flooded river crossings and four-wheel-driving is the norm.
“The villagers have the same obstacles to obtaining health care.
“The villagers are incredibly grateful for the services our team can provide.”
Gayle explained that the villagers only get one visit a year, so only one opportunity to buy their glasses and only one opportunity to get a rotten tooth pulled.
“The staff at the Aid Post or Health Centre also welcomes our visits as it is an opportunity for them to learn about new medications, new treatments and they can talk with fellow professionals,” she said.
The biggest challenge the couple came across was in some cases not being able to help people because the resources were just not there.
“Knowing that in Australia these people could have been so easily helped and that is probably the most distressing part is that had they been in Australia it would have been quite a simple procedure,” Gayle said.
“It’s quite exciting to go back though and look at the progress being made, particularly with family planning.”
Bruce explained that maternal deaths and infant mortality were major health issues.
“On patrol our family planner is the busiest,” he said.
“When we first went over there was no way a woman would have a contraceptive implant for family planning put in without her husband agreeing, but now we have women coming and getting implants and the husbands are better educated about why this is important.”
Gayle used her teaching background to help the team members with their roles as educators.
This included making books and charts containing health information surrounding topics such as malaria and diabetes.
“We educated the community, the health workers and the patrol members as well,” she said.
Last year ADI rural health patrols reached more than 46,000 people who otherwise would not have access to health care.
Living the village life
Some days up to 300 people are seen by some or all of the volunteers.
“We get hot and sweaty, are tired thirsty and hungry,” Gayle said.
“In the morning we load our medical equipment, then unload and carry them often in the pouring rain and repeat the process in the afternoon.
“We sleep on a mat on the floor under a mosquito net. If there is no fish caught that day our food is bully beef from a tin with some tough green leaves and lots of rice.
“But at the end of a long day we join the children to walk to the incredibly beautiful river for a wash, to clean our clothes and take in the fact that we are a part of village life and what a privilege that is.
Bruce and Gayle said the patrol members were great story tellers and at the end of a really busy day there was nothing better than sitting on a beach in the moonlight listening to their stories and joining in the laughter.
“No power, no phones, just the sounds of the tropical jungle, the water and the laughter - we are ready to start a new day,” they said.