LuAnne Cadd interviews Dr. David Mills in November 2016 about the Kompiam Hospital and how MAF supports their work in remote areas.
Kompiam Rural Hospital in Papua New Guinea is at the end of a road. Everything north is inaccessible except by walking or flying. The hospital supervises five health centers and four aid posts in those remote regions to the north. MAF flies medevacs from this region to Kompiam Hospital, as well as flying in medical supplies, staff and building materials to the remote health posts.
Dr. David Mills from Australia has been working at the hospital since 2000 sharing the journey with his wife, Karina, and four children (Natasha, Ashleigh, Chelsea and Nicholas).
What brought you to this remote place?
I’m from Australia, whence all good things come. I came as a medical student back in 1993, so that was my first taste of Papua New Guinea, and again in 1997 with my wife. In 1999 we came just to relieve a doctor but it was then that we decided to come back to Kompiam and we’ve been here effectively since 2000.
Is this a long-term commitment or do you have an end date?
No, we’ve never had an end date. We just take each year as it comes. We could finish tomorrow or they could bury us here. I don’t know.
Are you raising children here?
Oh yes. Goodness, I’ve lost count. We’ve got four of our own, but we tend to share PNG-style. We have a lot of extras that live in the house with us. I think we’re 11 at the moment.
You do ‘patrols’ where you visit the field health centres and aid posts, combining trekking and flying. How often do you do these?
It depends a lot on how well staffed we are. If we have enough doctors, then one of us should be out every month or two. For MAF flights, we spend what we have and work within our limit. But if we had more funding, our operations would be completely different because MAF would bring in patients all the time, we would patrol whenever we needed it, and bring in an aircraft any time. We have to say no to people continuously. We’ll take the emergencies we can do. So we’re operating in first gear if you like. If the support was there, we might get to second or third gear.
In PNG you’re still just putting the foundations down. You’re not even close to standing the frames up and putting the roof on in terms of a health service. It’s very rudimentary. Aircraft is not the entire answer, but if we had more funding, we’d certainly be able to get a lot further. It’s just the nature of PNG.
How many deliveries do you do at the hospital here?
We deliver about 200 here a year. There are about 1600 deliveries a year in the bush, so you get some idea of the imbalance. Some die. We have no data, but we know they’re out there because when we patrol, we hear the stories of women who have died in childbirth.
What would you say has been one of the greatest joys of this work for you?
It’s hard to distill it. The joys and the frustrations happen every day together. But if you can bring someone out of the bush who’s in obstructed labor, or in terrible pain and you can deliver that baby, for instance, that’s a very satisfying thing.
Also to be involved with the community, to sort out their issues, like today. We’re going onto the backside of the mountain to try and sort out this tribal fighting. To be part of a community in such an intimate way that you’re really involved in the machinations of what makes the community tick, for better or for worse – that’s a very privileged position to be in. There’s a deep satisfaction that this is what we’re meant to be doing.
What about challenges, hardships?
This is truly an ungoverned area in the sense that there’s no government, no police, no administration of any kind. And you have to work at a village level. If someone decides they want to break in here and steal, no one is going to stop him. So dealing with the community on that level without having any government structure around you was quite a foreign thing for us.
It also gets a bit lonely at times. We have very good friendships with the people here, but to be able to speak your own language, to have that relaxed style of conversation that you would be sitting over a coffee with someone – that we miss a bit. The people hold you with such high respect here, there’s not that level of intimacy that comes from having a conversation on the same level as just another human being, rather than one of the bosses. We miss that. That’s a level of friendship that’s quite important.
Tell me about the tribal fighting that is currently happening. Is it affecting the hospital?
This group here at Kompiam is fighting with the guys on the back of this mountain. So you have a situation where the people who get shot from here can come to the hospital, but the ones over there can’t come because this is enemy territory. So they start to get frustrated and say it’s not fair. ‘You guys are getting services and we’re not.’ So the response to that is they come and destroy the hospital. Then everyone is on the same playing field.
Those types of threats have started to emerge in the last 24 hours or so. We’re going to go there today and say we’ll try to help you guys as much as we can. (Since this interview the fighting has calmed down, according to Dr. Mills.)
How does MAF support your work here?
Right now we’re building accommodation for one of our health workers at Megau. We’ve flown in a kit house – two runs and we’re nearly finished. MAF has flown it all. Materials, everything.
Our health centers are spread out all over and they are connected by air. There’s no road network beyond Kompiam so you either fly or walk. To get a patient out they have to construct some sort of a stretcher and then carry the person which may take up to three days in some cases. Or they get them to an airstrip then get on the radio and organize a flight.
MAF is the only one that does that here. In this part of the world, it’s either walking or MAF. So without MAF, basically there’s no way for those women or surgical patients to get help. It’s critical.
I asked a patient whom Dr. Mills was attending to about the value of the hospital. Akalianda was shot in a tribal fight at Lapalama and flew with MAF to Kompiam Hospital. He is paralyzed and will likely not walk again.
Akalianda: If this hospital wouldn’t exist many of us who get wounded in tribal fights or are sick would die. Kompiam hospital and its little health centres they support us. I got seriously shot by a gun but the hospital was there with its staff and they continuously checked day and night and I am alive. We are very thankful for the hospital and health service of Kompiam. I would have died and they would have already buried me. This hospital is a good hospital.