Story by Linda Andresen. Photos Linda Andresen (LA), Andrea Rominger (AR), Camy Thomas (CT), Mandy Glass (MG)

When you come new to the PNG-program, the first thing you have to do is to learn Tok Pisin, the most common language of PNG’s 800 plus different languages. Some weeks ago, we went to Kompiam to do our language and village orientation. This meant that we would live for two weeks in a small remote place. People who work and live in the area of Kompiam hospital were going to teach us Tok Pisin and their local culture. I didn’t quite know what to expect. Luckily we got to stay in a house with a normal toilet. We had access to electricity 3.5 hours a day and most of the time there was water running out of the tap. After two weeks in Kompiam it was something completely other than the lack of amenities that had my focus.

Kompiam is located between mountains and deep valleys, it is an incredibly beautiful place just like many other places here in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. The scenery and the surroundings made a strong impression, but what impressed most was the people we met and got to know.

One of them was Dr Camy Thomas (30 years old). She is an Indian dentist who came to Kompiam in late 2018. Camy really is passionate about what she does and she looks at her task with a long-term perspective.

In many developing countries there is a lack of dental health, but most people still have a tradition of cleaning their teeth regularly. Different methods are used such as salt, coconut shell, twigs and sand. In the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, there is no tradition for cleaning teeth regularly, the majority of the population has never heard of tooth brushes and tooth paste. With the introduction of soft drinks such as Coca-cola, biscuits and candies which contain processed sugar, there is an increasing need for fluoride based interventions to prevent cavities.

A common favourite among vast populations of Papua New Guineans is the chewing of Betel nut, which is addictive and contains psychoactive ingredients, causes erosion of enamel and destruction of gums and bone tissue, it is also carcinogenic, causing oral and throat cancers and has other adverse health effects on the entire body. Betel nut is mixed with slaked lime and mustard for flavour which results in the saliva turning red, thus staining teeth. Its anesthetic effect on the teeth and gums makes it all the more in demand for people with rotting teeth, and the vicious cycle of destruction continues. Cancer of the mouth is very common for both women and men in PNG, a country where cancer treatment is hard to receive because of no proper infrastructure or protocol in place.

Betel nuts on sale (MG)

Dr Camy is working systematically. Every fortnight she and the dental team accompany the medical team to travel on patrol to different communities in the area. It takes them 10 to 30 minutes to fly to the different locations in an MAF aircraft. If they had gone there by foot it would have taken a couple of days and they would have had to stay overnight in the jungle. With MAF this health service becomes possible and much more effective. When the group of health care personnel comes to a village, it can be anything between 40 to 300 patients they see. Dr Camy takes care of those who need dental care and she teaches children and adults how to brush their teeth. Educating communities on the adverse effects of Betel nut chewing, smoking of hand rolled, and store bought cigarettes and the harmful effects of processed sugars are the primary focus.

Dr. Camy told me about a patient whom she challenged to stop the everyday buying of biscuits and soft drinks for lunch for herself and her family and instead cook with the garden produce, which includes sweet potatoes, fruits, vegetables and leaves. A few weeks later, the patient returned to Dr Camy and said she was following the advice and had now not only improved the dietary intake of nutritious food for herself and her family but also ended up saving a considerable amount of money.

Seeing how Dr Camy and the other health workers work to make a lasting change in the lives of people here has really impressed me. To me it was a great experience and a privilege to be with these heroes for a couple of weeks.

Dr Camy in Action: Educating a Community
Story by Andrea Rominger

The Kompiam hospital’s dental team first visited Yenkisa in November 2018. On that visit, along with providing treatment and dental education, tooth brushes and Fluoride tooth paste samples were handed to children while educating them on how it should be used.

On a follow-up visit in March 2019, Dr Camy discovered that even though tooth paste and tooth brushes were handed out to the children in November last year, they were hardly using it.
So on this visit, children and adults were shown again how to brush their teeth as an activity. Two locals of the community, one man and one woman, were trained to teach more villagers the proper brushing technique.

Dr Camy and Dr. Kasper Puli explaining dental anatomy and hygiene at Yenkisa (AR)

Dr Camy teaching adults and children correct brushing
technique (AR)

“If it wasn’t for MAF, so many different doctors wouldn’t come to serve these people.
If it wasn’t for the doctors MAF couldn’t fly.
We would have to walk for two days here and two days back and would have been away from the hospital for four days.”
Dr Camy Thomas