Australia Live Aboard Vessel Provides Medical Care To Remote PNG

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

Floating hospital operated by Youth with a Mission

By Mark Rigby

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, Feb. 8, 2016) – For people living in some of Papua New Guinea's most remote areas, the nearest hospital is often one that arrives by sea.

With up to 100 volunteers on board, the merchant vessel Youth with a Mission, or MV YWAM PNG, travels from far north Queensland to Papua New Guinea (PNG) delivering medical aid to those who may otherwise go without.

Put simply, it is a floating hospital, the reality is a lot more.

"In PNG, us being able to provide for them in a small way can change their whole life," Ella Bouman, one of the ship's volunteer nurses, said.

"Just having a conversation or doing a clinical assessment can change their life, especially in ophthalmics or eye surgery."

Two patients can undergo simultaneous vision-restoring cataract surgery at once in the eye surgery operating theatre, on one of the ship's lower decks.

As well as a theatre dedicated to eye surgery, the ship is also fitted out with a diagnostic laboratory.

"We can test for malaria and tuberculosis and leprosy so that's a fantastic tool," Ms Bouman said.

"A lot of the health issues we do see are things that we aren't used to here in Australia.

"Last year, we came across leprosy so we had to figure out how to treat that with what capacity we have [available]."

While not considered as life-threatening as some of the diseases volunteers treat, dental hygiene is also an important part of the ship's service.

Adjacent to the eye surgery theatre is the ship's dental surgery, where patients undergo anything from a check-up to a root canal.

Challenges of life on board floating hospital

Volunteering on board a floating hospital is rewarding work, but is not without its challenges.

From a medical perspective, Ms Bouman said being unable to treat a patient was often hard to accept.

"If you're able to clearly see what the issue is, but we don't have the skills or the resources to be able to help them, that can be quite challenging as a health professional," she said.

For the ship's chief mate, Jan Alnes, the challenges of working in PNG are very different.

Mr Alnes is often required to navigate the ship using maps and charts created during World War II.

"That's all the data we have for most of the places we go, but in the worst case, we don't have anything," Mr Alnes said.

"To take a ship with 100 people into uncharted waters where we can't make any mistakes is a big challenge.

"But, as a mariner, it's the most exciting challenge I think I've ever taken on."

No challenge without reward

Mr Alnes said among the many things he and the other crew looked forward to whenever they set off for PNG was the reception they got from villagers in the areas they visited.

"Every once in a while, we get a little bit of feedback from the locals on how we help and how we influence the way they live," he said.

"And to see the people of PNG rise to their jobs and the tasks on board and ashore when they help and assist us, that's just one of the greatest things."

For Ms Bouman, exploring new places in PNG often reaps rewards of a material nature.

"They're all just so excited to have us there that they come out with food and all sorts," she said.

"We can come back to the ship and we've just got arms full of coconuts or bananas."

But her greatest reward is in being able to deliver life-changing medical assistance to the people of PNG.

"Being able to restore sight to somebody who was blind before is just incredible," she said.

"To provide that healthcare to these people completely changes their life and that's the kind of healthcare that I really desire to give to people."

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