Dentist on a mission to PNG

SMILES ALL ROUND: Alstonville dentist John Philips with a PNG patient.
SMILES ALL ROUND: Alstonville dentist John Philips with a PNG patient.

WITH little sanitation or electricity available, providing medical care for the local population in Papua New Guinea brought with it many challenges for Alstonville dentist John Philips. Earlier this year, John went on an outreach mission to remote areas of PNG with 40 medical volunteers aged 18-25, all travelling on a Youth With A Mission medical ship. For two weeks, John performed dental work in the ship's operating theatre on about 30 people every day - people who ordinarily have no access to medical or dental care.

"Every day, you work until there are no more patients from that area to see," John said. "Because most of the trading posts don't sell pain-killers or drug supplies, you also need to work out if the patient will need antibiotics and give them some. One doctor who has been working there didn't even have injections and just pulled out the teeth without painkillers."

This is the tenth trip John has made to PNG and he said that people were now coming more readily to the doctors because they had built a level of trust with them.

"This was the first year we did as many fillings as extractions," John said. "We educate them about what's happening in their mouths in pidgin English and some of the young volunteers with drama skills get to communicative with the locals in creative ways.

"Near the end of the trip, one PNG lady with good English skills who was helping us asked me to look in her mouth. She had paddled down the creek for two days and brought everyone from her village to see us. All her teeth were snapped off at the gum and she told us that two months ago she had a toothache and didn't know which tooth the pain was coming from. She had snapped off her teeth one by one until she found the abscess so it could drain. By the time she saw me, there was pus dripping everywhere and we had to take out 17 of her teeth."

The medical ship didn't only carry dentists; a team of medical doctors and trainees would travel to shore every day to give primary medical care and vaccinations to the locals, including distributing second-hand eye-glasses to those who needed them.

"The average rainfall in PNG is 12 metres per year and it was raining every morning we were there," John said. "We would watch the medical team in wet weather gear leave the ship in a dinghy, then wade through mud to get to shore. They had surgical gowns on top but had bare legs below the knees, so they could wash the mud off before they went into surgery. The team had cleaned up an operating room in a local hospital so they could use it for operations."

Medical teams would also perform Fred Hollows-style eye surgery and train local doctors from Port Moresby Hospital in the procedures. John spent time training young volunteers in new techniques for working in Third World conditions.

"The life expectancy in PNG is 47 years," John said.

"As well as giving the locals medical help, we also helped to educate them about prevention of malaria, TB, HIV and cholera. In some villages, creek banks are used as toilets and they get polluted.

"We are extremely blessed to live in a country like Australia. In PNG, they struggle every day to grow enough food to eat, get clean water to drink and keep their babies clean. Communities there are in decline through corruption and lack of funding and I hope I can inspire other people who want to help to get involved.

"We are planning already to go next year with some of the young staff from my practice in Alstonville, but no matter what you do, you can volunteer and there will be a village or community that can use your skills. You can also learn to do something that is needed, like eye tests," John said.

"Initially I thought I was doing something for them, but in 10 years I've found I've done a lot for myself. I get a lot more out of it that I can ever possibly give and I come back with my soul feeling good."

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