Almost two weeks ago I had a total knee replacement done with a renowned surgeon at an excellent hospital. My care was exceptional and I am healing quickly. Of course… I would not expect less. As I sit here now in my clean, warm, cozy abode, I realize how much I take my cushy life and our western, advanced, health care system for granted. Yet, flashing back to my time in New Guinea over forty years ago, what I accepted then as routine, normal – albeit quasi-acceptable care under primitive conditions – would be unthinkable today. As I return to my writing, this story particularly comes to my mind…
I woke suddenly from a deep sleep. Someone was pounding on the door, shouting. “Sistah, sistah. Helpim, helpim!” I was frequently summoned to respond to emergencies at all hours of the day and night. I quickly grabbed a flashlight, threw on a robe, and peered into the stark darkness of a moonless night. There in the shadows were four men. “Sistah, come kwik. Dispela man bilong mi ples gat bik bagarap (big accident) He bruk leg. Planti blut. Ples kam hariup.” I threw some clothes on, grabbed my medical bag, and woke my husband. “Get one of the trucks and grab another guy. We’ll need help.
We quickly drove up the mountain road to the trailhead that led to their village. I jumped out of the truck. Someone grabbed my wrist, yanking me onto a narrow path cut out of the dense, almost impenetrable jungle. We slipped and staggered down the muddy trail, ducking our heads to keep the vegetation from slapping our faces. Shortly, it opened up to reveal a small clearing containing eight huts surrounding a central, large campfire that illuminated the villagers hovering over a man who lay on the ground. He was moaning loudly; a woman was standing by his side sobbing, a whimpering baby strapped to her back.
I dropped to my knees and with my flashlight I could see immediately that he had a compound fracture of his fibula, the bone clearly penetrating the skin. He was covered in blood. As there was no water available, I covered his wound, applied pressure with some clean bandages from my bag, secured them with a cloth wrapped around his leg and stabilized it with some sticks. I had pethidine (Demerol) with me and gave him an injection to ease his pain. We loaded him onto a blanket we had brought with us and with difficulty hauled him back out to the truck where we lay him on a piece of plywood that served as a stretcher. It had been raining and I knew the road to the hospital on the coast would be flooded. I dropped off one of the men where we lived so he could radio ahead and notify the haus sik (hospital) that we were coming and to have a truck ready to meet us. Our drive would take several hours.
As we arrived at the edge of the washed out road, six of the villagers lifted the plywood, with the patient balanced precariously, onto their shoulders and slowly forded the fast moving stream, the water swirling dangerously around their chests. Oh my God, I thought. This could go so wrong. I held my breath till they reached the other side. An old, decrepit vehicle that served as an ambulance was waiting to receive him. They loaded him up and whisked him away to the small hospital where the only doctor on the island would try to put him back together under more optimal conditions. We turned and left knowing there was nothing more we could do.
The night was dissolving into early morning light. Exhausted and bleary eyed we climbed into our truck and headed back up the mountain. I leaned back and closed my eyes, thinking… just another typical day as a bush nurse really… At twenty-five years of age, it was a perfect place to be in my life.