According to the World Health Organisation, Papua New Guinea (PNG) has some of the worst health indicators in the Pacific. For a population nearing seven million, PNG has 400 doctors of which less than 15% work outside the capital city, despite 85% or the population living in rural areas. PNG’s maternal mortality rate is very high with almost half of all women giving birth without the assistance of a doctor or midwife. Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) health programme is growing to address some of these issues and the goal is to break down the vicious cycle of ill health, poverty and social exclusion.
62 year old, Gert van den Berg plays a significant role in the neo-natal aspect of the health programme. Gert has traded the flat meadows and lakes of his homeland in Fryslân, in the North of the Netherlands, for the unpredictable land of the unexpected in PNG. Although both are places of farming and grassland, working in this tropical part of the Pacific is a significant culture shift where resources are scarce and expertise limited.
His young life was spent on a cargo ship where his Father worked transporting goods to different places and he became used to not being fixed to one place. From the age of 8 years old, Gert knew that he wanted to work in a developing country: “I realised that there was a difference in people’s quality of life, that we had everything that we needed, were able to be free and were very fortunate but I knew that there were children that didn’t have food or access to education and that there was great inequality. It didn’t feel right that there was so much difference between the privileged and under privileged.”
“I realised that there was a difference in people’s quality of life, that we had everything that we needed, were able to be free and were very fortunate but I knew that there were children that didn’t have food or access to education and that there was great inequality.”
His initial thought was that he would become a missionary but as he moved away from the church and towards a career in agriculture it was a chance discussion that took him towards medicine. After three months he knew he had made the right decision to become a Tropical Doctor.
Following his studies, Gert worked extensively in Africa in both Nigeria and Ghana. It was his internship in Nigeria working in a leprosy hospital that solidified that he wanted to work overseas: “People who had signs of leprosy were discriminated against and were thrown out of the family. They were put into separate settlements with no real infrastructure and treated incredibly badly. I was able to offer rehabilitative treatments that allowed patients to use their hands and feet and I could see the incredible difference that it made to their lives.”
Gert gained significant experience in Ghana where he lived with his wife, who he has been married to for 36 years, and his two children. He was one of two doctors working in a 150 bed hospital where he did 10 operations per week and was on call every other day: “The economy at the time was in a huge decline, school books weren’t made any more, there were no pens for the students, no black boards and all children had to take their table and chair to school with them. The teachers were really devoted but over time the only concern was being paid. Children were allocated as the class monitor to keep the class in line, as often teachers didn’t turn up. Expertise in the hospitals had been lost so some operations were not done anymore. Produce was no longer available and there was hardly any food in the market. It was a very hard time for the Ghanaians.”
Gert has been working in PNG for the past 18 months in the obstetrics and gynecology department at Modilon hospital. His main role at the hospital is giving lectures and coaching trainee doctors on theory as well as practice. He does ward rounds every morning where students accompany him. He also provides emergency support and assists with operations in the under staffed hospital where there are often huge delays caused by lack of appropriate staff available when needed.
“I like to think that some of the insights that I’ve been able to share will continue after I have left. It is nice to see people growing through their training and it makes me happy that we give a good service to the women that we help when they are delivering their babies.”
He has been able to offer simple solutions that make a huge difference to the way that patients are treated: “With ectopic pregnancies, as the baby grows in the incorrect place it causes internal bleeding. The blood that collects inside the body is still safe to use and can be extracted and given back to the patient as an auto-infusion. I bought the equipment that is needed to give this procedure, shared the skills with the trainees and the blood is now given back to the patients and not wasted. It is really encouraging to see the staff using the equipment and skills. There is a real scarcity of blood and patients are never given more than two litres so they are now given much more blood and leave the hospital far stronger.” He also bought some torches into the hospital and the hospital followed suit so at night there is some light when there is a black out and the women aren’t in the darkness.
In two years, Gert’s contribution to the hospital will have helped impart knowledge to countless students and will have saved many lives: “I like to think that some of the insights that I’ve been able to share will continue after I have left. It is nice to see people growing through their training and it makes me happy that we give a good service to the women that we help when they are delivering their babies. I feel that I have really contributed to the education of the trainee doctors as well as improving the infrastructure.”
VSO PNG is expanding its health team and is looking for volunteers for the newly funded nurse education and nutrition programmes. Are you a health professional looking to work in a developing context? Your skills could be invaluable to help save lives.