Looking back over my year on that island, I can’t believe we didn’t kill someone. There we were: Nurse Anne with an elevated blood alcohol level most days. Joe and John were the “dokta boys” who lived in a nearby village and had been dubiously trained to do various tasks around the clinic. Then there was me – in possession of a RN license no one ever asked to see – and little else in the way of skills to offer. Under these unique circumstances my past nursing experiences proved almost useless. I had no idea what I was doing; knew nothing about tropical medicine; and couldn’t believe I was being asked to do surgical procedures only a doctor should have been performing.
But…and this was a very big but – the four of us were all they had – the only show in town – the only providers of medical care on that mountain in 1969. The nearest doctor was three hours away on the coast in Kieta, and as rumor had it, he also loved his gin, and had had to take his medical exams three times.
I jumped in by necessity and figured it out pretty fast: How to sew up gaping wounds. How to give nerve blocks in fingers and toes to remove smashed nails that were ripped apart. How to remove impaled foreign objects. What potions to slather on weird skin conditions. Even in her most inebriated moments, Anne was a remarkable teacher. She had been at this a long time.
Malaria was pretty common there in addition to other puzzling fevers of unknown origins. It became routine. Every day when we arrived, we checked the logbook where the dokta boy had entered the temperatures of all the patients, as we based their individual treatments on those recordings. One morning I got there early, just as John was beginning his morning rounds. I watched as he filled his hands with thermometers out of the alcohol container. He methodically walked from mat to mat, carefully placing a thermometer under the tongue of each patient. He waited exactly three minutes. Then he went around, just as methodically, and removed all those thermometers, clutching them in his hands. He proceeded to walk back to the desk where he dramatically and randomly plucked them out, one by one, in no particular order, and recorded the result next to a name, and so on down the list.
Wow, I thought, not believing what I had just witnessed. “John, where did you learn to take temperatures this way?” I asked incredulously, imagining the malpractice we had been a party to in our under and over treatment of patients. “Oh, Sistah Anne skulim me narakain way. Tumas slo. Mipela way mobeta. Mo kwik. Tink tink me gutpela bilong wok?” he asked, beaming with pride at his ingenuity.
Uh… Well… It was true. He was a good worker. But I was speechless and my command of Pidgin English was pathetic. I punted to Anne, as she was renown for being a “misus bilong toktok” (big talker) and was, after all, the boss. She seemed nonplussed and just shrugged. But whatever she said worked. They smiled, shook hands, and he began to take temperatures properly.
“After that little business, I’m exhausted,” she said. “Time for tea.”