This past week I had the incredible opportunity to pack a bag, leave the office, and venture out into some of the most remote parts of Western Papua New Guinea. MAF has entered into a partnership with Aerial Health Patrols (AHP), and I was taking the opportunity to see how this very strategic partnership was impacting the people living in the remote communities of the Western Province.
Departing Mount Hagen on Wednesday morning, we flew to a couple other remote airstrips delivering passengers and freight before arriving at the “town” of Balimo in the Western Province where I met up with the AHP Team. Balimo is the hub for the AHP initiative.
The heat and humidity of the lowlands is definitely different from the cool temperatures of the highlands. Shirts are immediately damp (ok – often soaked) with sweat, the buzz of mosquitoes and the cacophony of singing jungle birds permeates the air. It immediately transported my mind back to our very early days (Connie and I) on the island of Yap in Micronesia, nearly 30 years ago. I felt very much at home.
We made our way to our lodging for the night and prepared our supplies and equipment for the next day’s flight to Debepari an airstrip and village deep in the jungle of the Western Province, not too far from the border of West Papua (Indonesia).
Thursday morning we heard the distinct sound of our MAF plane arriving. We made our way to the airstrip, loaded the medical supplies, equipment, sleeping mats, mosquito nets and food on the plane, climbed aboard, and headed from remote….to REALLY remote!
Upon landing at Debepari, we were met with a great throng of people, all waiting for the much anticipated arrival of the AHP Medical Team. The team is made up of a doctor, nurses, WASH (Water, Sanitation, Hygiene) personnel and members for family Health / Planning. The AHP initiative partners with the village Community Health Workers, coming along side them in their village, supporting, encouraging, educating, and assisting. The purpose is not to supplant the residing Health Worker, but to work with them on more complicated cases, bring further education, and help to build the respect of the community for their health worker. Each AHP team will only be present in each respective community/village for a few days every quarter. The local village worker is there 24/7. By empowering them, the work of the team can be exponentially multiplied.
As we first met with the community John, the PNG National team leader, opened in prayer for those in attendance and the community as a whole. A couple hundred were present. We outlined the purpose of the visit and what we hoped to see achieved. We then invited them all to an evening video showing that would take place at the health center, prayed a closing prayer and left to the health center to prepare for Friday and to do some training with the local health worker – Michael.
It just so happens that in Debepari, the village health worker Michael (25) and his wife (who was gone to another village at the time), are both recent graduates of the Nazarene College of Nursing – Kudjip Mission Station. I have seen many health outposts over the years, and this one was exceptional. For his young age, Michael had his health post in top shape. Gravity fed running water from the rain catchment tanks, medicines organised, instruments clean and tidy, solar-powered LED lights and a solar powered-vaccine refrigerator. (The AHP team came with many vaccines to provide vaccinations as well as stock Michael’s refrigerator). Michael’s smile was infectious as he told us of his passion for caring for his people in the village. The health of the children and the village was truly a testimony to Michael’s training, care, concern, and compassion.
Thursday night we found a local creek to rinse off in, removing the dust of the day and sweat of the jungle heat.
Friday morning we started out early. The AHP team made their way to the health center and I began working with the MAF Agent and airstrip maintenance officer. There were several airstrip marker cones that needed replaced. Making sure that these airstrips are in top condition is a priority. Short of walking for days through the jungle, aviation is the only connection to the outside world for the people of Debepari. The grass must be kept mowed, ant hills addressed, and any holes made by wild pigs or dogs, filled in.
With the help of several young lads and a hearty wheelbarrow, we walked the airstrip, inspected for condition, re-aligned several cones that had been moved by children, and replaced missing threshold marker cones.
Returning to the health center, drenched in sweat, I found the AHP team in full action. At least a hundred children with their moms, dads, or both, were waiting to be seen, weighed, and for many – vaccinated. There were many adult patients waiting to be seen as well. Some had walked for hours and even overnight to be seen. As there was no way that the team doctors could see everyone in the short time, Michael triaged the more complicated cases. Cysts, infections, epigastric pain, suspected cancer, Tuberculosis, and hernias were all concerns that were identified with the patients. Some could be treated with the medicine at hand, several would need referral to one of the larger care centers / hospitals in the Western Province. All could be touched with caring hands, encouraged, and prayed for.
As Debepari is just being added to the regular patrols, it was planned that this first patrol would be shorter. Relationships would be built with the community, surveys of the greatest needs would be conducted, vaccinations would be started, as many patients would be seen as possible, and then the next scheduled patrol would capitalize on what was learned during this trip.
As the blazing tropical sun crossed overhead making its way to the horizon, the team continued seeing patients. Around 2pm in the afternoon the all familiar distant and increasing hum of the MAF airplane could be heard as it approached to pick up the team. With so many still waiting to be seen, we checked the weather and asked our pilot, Israel, to give us as much time as possible. Finally, with the afternoon sun waning, we packed up our bags, completed some final training with Michael and climbed aboard our MAF plane for the return flight to AHP headquarters in Balimo.
Lifting off of the airstrip, my mind was reviewing all that had been seen and accomplished in this short visit. The number of lives touched, those prayed for, and the ones who had diseases that would ultimately take their lives in this remote part of the world where access to curative measures is just not possible. Even if we could get access to the Chemotherapy necessary, the costs and followups would be absolutely out of reach for these precious people of the Jungle.
What we can give them is love, care, compassion and hope of something better to come. I’m so thankful that Michael and his wife not only completed nurses training at Nazarene College of Nursing, but also training to be ministers. We all know that any physical comfort we can bring now, pales in the light of the everlasting comfort of a life transformed by the Great Physician.
And so is the journal of a trip with MAF and the Aerial Health Patrol Team. Thank you to each one who prays for, encourages, financially supports, and advocates for the ministry of our family and MAF around the World!
Hope and Healing truly does come on the wings of love – the wings of MAF – and you are the wind beneath those wings!
Yours and His for the harvest,
Todd and Connie Lou