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).

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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.

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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.

“Alpha 899, Alpha 899,” David Feka calls into the HF radio he has spent the last two days installing in a remote mountain village in Papua New Guinea. “This is our first call out of Guasa education radio. Do you copy me? Over.”

The group gathered in the small schoolroom listens intently while a cluster of children presses their faces up against the glass louver windows to watch the ‘show’.

Lukas Schadegg’s voice comes through the speaker loud and clear from Goroka, 29 nautical miles to the northeast. “Yeah David, I copy you.”

With a delighted grin on his face, David responds, “I can hear you crystal clear, like I’m talking to you on a mobile phone!”

 

Still Relevant Radio

This is HF radio, a nearly hundred-year-old technology, still relevant for remote mountain communities in Papua New Guinea, connecting them to the outside. Despite the rise of mobile phones throughout PNG, cellular signals are hard to come by in the Highlands making phones unreliable or entirely useless for reaching someone on the other side of a mountain.

David passes the handset to Felix, a teacher, and explains how it works: push the button to talk; finish what you say with ‘over’; let go of the button to listen. Robert struggles with how to hold the handset and when to let go of the button.

“It’s really hard to teach them this new thing. Sometimes, after they talk, they think it’s a mobile phone and they put the handset to their ear,” David describes, fully aware of the dichotomy of a remote people more familiar with modern mobile phones than HF radios. “I feel like laughing, but it would be rude.”

 

Connecting Fly-in Schools

David Feka and Joey Redhead with MAF Technology Services (known in PNG as Christian Radio Missionary Fellowship – CRMF) flew on MAF’s Airvan to the community of Guasa in the Eastern Highlands, working for two days to install a HF radio system for the Guasa Primary School. The work involved many hours on a hot tin roof, blinded by the reflective glare, in order to set up a solar panel and position the tall radio antenna.

“I love doing this,” David says. “Once you finish an installation, you hear the first radio call that comes in and see the smiles on people’s faces. They know that they’re connected to the outside world. Once you do all the hard work, it’s the most satisfying thing that what you’re doing can change people’s lives.”

MAF Technology Services installs radios for mission and church work, health clinics, and educational facilities. This particular HF radio installation is part of a test project for the Department of Education to install a radio in eight remote “fly-in” schools in the Eastern Highlands region – schools with no road access. The radios will be used for basic communication with the district, but particularly to monitor the teachers, many of whom abandon their jobs to move back to a town and continue collecting automatic paycheck deposits. For remote schools such as Guasa, it’s difficult for the district office to confirm that each teacher is still in their classroom. At the time of the Guasa HF radio installation, six out of nine teachers had abandoned their posts.

With an HF radio positioned on the school grounds, each teacher will be required to respond to a daily radio role-call from the district. Why not use mobile phones? “Because the teacher can lie,” says Felix Mathew, Grade 3 teacher and one of the three remaining in Guasa. “If they call on the phone and ask, ‘Where are you? Are you in Guasa?’ I can say ‘Yes!’. Those people in the office don’t know. Is he in the school or not? So that’s why it’s good that they put in this radio.”

Teachers Felix Mathew and Robert Kimb have stayed in Guasa because they feel it’s their mission to serve people in remote places. “We’re here to give service to those people who miss out on things – basic services like schools. We came here to develop the community,” Felix explained.

But it hasn’t been easy, not only because the community often does not value and support the school, but because the workload doubles when other teachers abandon their jobs. “Robert is the teacher for Grade 5, but when those six teachers are gone he’s taking Grade 6 too. I’m teaching Grade 3, 4, and 2. Another teacher is taking Grade 7 and 8. It’s a lot of work.”

If the HF Radio project is a success in the Eastern Highlands, MAF Technology Services will continue the project throughout all PNG provinces.

 

Movie Night

For the MAF Technology Services team, combining technology and ministry is central to their mission, particularly in remote places such as Guasa where access to the closest town is a two-day walk crossing mountains and rivers, or a 20-minute flight with MAF.

“At the back of it, the important thing is that we get permission to show the ‘Jesus’ video,” says Bryan Matthew, Deputy General Manager of MAF Technology Services. “We try to make sure that on every remote installation of the radio or VSAT we tie in the ‘Jesus’ video so that we are doing work and then ministry afterward. That’s the good part.”

For a village in the mountains with no electricity and few forms of entertainment, watching a movie is a huge event that draws a crowd even in poor weather conditions. In Guasa, the heavens opened in an epic downpour prior to the scheduled outdoor showing on the school grounds, but when the rain stopped the people came to stand or sit on the wet dirt for the two-hour movie.

MAF flies in all the necessary equipment, including a generator that is used for both work and the evening movie. “People walk from villages far away to come and watch,” Bryan describes. “Sometimes they spend the night with their friends in the nearby village, and then go back. It’s exciting.”

Following the movie at Guasa, David challenged the audience to consider what Jesus Christ did for them, and whether they truly know Christ or are living a life worthy of Him.

A Lifeline

The HF radio at MAF Technology Services’ office in Goroka is the link between remote places across the whole of PNG and crucial services needed such as ordering supplies, booking flights with MAF, or emergency medevacs. MAF Technology Services continues to receive an average of 200 HF radio calls per year requesting medevacs which MAF Operations responds to.

“When you’re out there, there’s no one who’s going to help you except Alpha 899, our call sign,” Bryan says. “HF radio is a lifeline for many, many people.”