The Mystery of the Closed Health Centre

Cleaning the Health Centre that had been shut up for at least 18 months was quite a task. We hadn’t come prepared to do cleaning and were very remote. It’s not easy finding a bucket, cloths, let alone detergent. I asked one of the women if we could get a bucket, soon a large metal one appeared. I asked if there was a broom or something similar and shortly I saw a young woman sweeping the floors with a wad of straw tied together. In a cupboard I found some green theatre cloths and made an executive decision to use them to wipe surfaces. We also used some of the triangular bandages from the first aid kits we had. In terms of detergent, as I mentioned earlier, there was a bag of cleaning powder – I couldn’t see what ingredients they were but suspect it was bicarbonate soda. We added some to the bucket of water.

Anyone that was standing around and watching was shooed out! We said they had to be working or leave. Tough I know, but I wanted them to feel part of the whole process of getting the place up and running again.

The question was asked whether opening and cleaning the Health Centre was the right thing to do and was not going against the village councillors. I had to stop for a minute and run through the facts in my head:

  • the men of the village had asked us to open the centre and run a clinic for the sick children
  • I had spoken with Matthew one of the local men and he had reassured me that it was ok to do this – he was the go between with the village leaders
  • The centre had been closed under dubious circumstances for such a long time and the village children had been without health care in that time: they were suffering.

Yes, I felt it was absolutely the right thing to do. I felt we had to show courage in the face of ‘unseen opposition’ for the sake of the women and children. Deep down I hoped that by our actions we could show the locals how to rise up against the fear and do the right thing.

Later that day we heard a bit more to the story about why the centre was closed. Apparently there were 2 qualified Health Workers paid by the Health Department. The young son of one of the men died and there were accusations of sorcery. As compensation for the loss of his son, the Health Worker took the ambulance boat with a 40hp engine (apparently the government had provided an ambulance boat to each village with a Health Centre to improve transport between the villages and the Centre), the radio and moved to the town. He is still being paid for his services, the Health Authorities still have Bunam Health Centre down on their books as being open and providing a service. The HW is receiving fuel and using it for his own use or on selling it. It appears that the other HW is afraid and as a result, no health services have been provided in all that time. We saw some Family Planning cards in the clinic, but they were dated late 2011 as the last time they were used. We were also told that there was a local man who had had some training and he would sometimes open the clinic and provide medicine but he’d charge 50 Kina pp!! That’s about $28 which is just prohibitive for these people, most of whom earn very little and are subsistence gardeners.

So, the situation was multi layered and hotly political. The story changed depending on who you spoke to and so it was difficult to find the truth. It was a mystery. And it was a mystery that the village leaders had allowed the situation to continue, depriving their people and the surrounding 22 villages of adequate health care. When I look back I am amazed at how unfazed we all were. We just had an amazing sense of peace and calm and desire to do the right thing for the people, especially the women and children.

We were gobsmacked at the variety of things we found in the boxes and dusty cupboards. There was a huge box of condoms, IV/IM Penicillin, Chloroquin, Chloramphenicol (A very strong antibiotic), Ampicillin for adults and kids, Augmentin Forte, water purifying tablets, Chloramphenicol eye ointment, and some iron tablets. We couldn’t find any guides for the medicine and I felt strongly about not practising outside of our area of comfort and knowledge! But, we had the amazing Docop. Docop had travelled in the boat with us and I remember him from Yamen too. A really humble man. While we were cleaning the Health Centre he said to me that he has been a volunteer Merisen Man for 18 yrs, for no money, but God Blesses him. He gave me a huge smile. What a precious man.

I asked him about the medicines and he knew the dosages and which medicines to use when, so I asked him to help us and do the prescribing. He was very happy to help.

Docop helping to clean the floor – notice the new paint on the walls!

Debbie sorting out the medicines

A great photo of Docop – one of my favourite men in PNG!

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