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Medical Realities in Kokoda Today

Kokoda has a special place in the hearts of Australians but few are aware of the need for a reliable medical service. In 1995 Australia’s former Prime Minister, Paul Keating, opened the Kokoda Memorial Hospital, funded by Rotary. Since then teams of Rotarians have returned regularly with donations of equipment and medical supplies. What is needed is an ongoing, guaranteed supply of medicines from government. When I last heard there was no permanent doctor there.

Medical care across rural PNG is very limited. In the whole country there are fewer than 400 doctors for 8 million people. Compare this with Brisbane Women’s hospital which had 410 doctors in June this year. PNG women are 80 times more likely to die during childbirth than in Australia. Causes include severe bleeding, infections and eclampsia. This still happens in Kokoda villages as it does in some rural Queensland districts where maternity support has been reduced, according to recent media reports.

However, some groups are helping PNG people access the sort of care we take for granted here. The Australian organisation Children First has brought children who need specialist care to Australia for treatment. The Digital Foundation PNG has funded 31 mobile health clinics, but only one is in Oro Province which includes Kokoda and Popondetta. PNG received its first and only dialysis machine last year. Unfortunately, 60% of those needing dialysis treatment cannot afford it.

Last month I wrote about walking up the Trail from Kokoda in 1969, with Biage boys from my class at the primary school there. Now, in 2018, those boys are middle-aged, as are my sons.

One of those Biage boys was John. These days my sons and I keep regular contact and stay with his family in their small village when we visit. The houses are constructed mainly from bush materials, as is the toilet built for guests. The nearby creek serves as a bathroom, with males and females using separate sections to bathe. Drinking water is taken from another creek and carried on heads to the village houses. John’s wife and her daughter cook very tasty meals on a kerosene stove. They have a generator and a mobile phone.

Sadly, John is no longer with us.

When John had a heart attack, someone had to ride a bike a couple of kilometres to reach Kokoda Hospital to get help. No doctor was there.

Recently John’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and needed surgery. Her village is 75 km from Popondetta. Fortunately, in March this year Popondetta General Hospital gained a refurbished operating theatre.

The usual transport from Kokoda is some sort of truck, with far too many passengers squatting or standing in the back. It’s a very rough road.

Her Australian friends were very worried. How could she survive the long, rough trip to hospital and back? Who would do the necessary mastectomy? What about the danger of infection? What about post-op follow-up?

They decided to raise the money required to hire a comfortable vehicle to transport her to and fro. The medical expenses were also far too expensive. Extra money was sought and found for that too. She returned to her village only days after surgery.

Two weeks later our friend returned to Popondetta to have her stitches removed. No infection was found. Cross your fingers that she continues to do well because no chemotherapy or radiation treatment is available.

On the Road to Kokoda

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