Wantok - Building connections through health

As a new group of UQ medical students prepare to volunteer in Papua New Guinea, third-year medical student Rose Blackwood reflects on her experience as part of the project.

The PNG Health Project (PHP) is the brainchild of my friend and medical student, Eve Golma. Her vision came to fruition last year when myself and nine other UQ med students travelled to her homeland of Papua New Guinea (PNG) to help educate school kids about health and wellbeing.

On the first day of the very first PNG Health Project, we met at the Brisbane international airport and had a laugh distributing medical supplies between us. I flew over with a few hundred condoms and sanitary pads in my bag – we sure got a lot of funny looks from people passing by. A short flight with beautiful views of the ocean took us to Port Moresby, where we were hit with a wave of humidity and heat. From here, the adventure started to feel real as we were thrown amidst the sounds of 4WDs honking and people talking in Tok Pisin (a pidgin language that’s one of three national languages). Dusty, sprawling roads lead us into Port Moresby’s centre.Though it’s the capital, the city is relatively small with only a few high-rise apartments and one shopping mall. Traffic laws exist but are followed sporadically, and the streets are stained red from betel nut juice.

I was struck by the juxtaposition of chaos and noise, with simplicity and calm, as the traffic of the day died away and we were left with no light pollution to ruin the stars of the night sky.

After sorting out phone connections and some logistics, we settled into our accommodation for the week at the university. The students who usually occupy the rooms had bunked in with friends in order to accommodate us – just one example of the overwhelmingly beautiful hospitality we received. The rudimentary facilities provided challenges for some (flooding showers, plenty of mosquitos, blocked toilets,and no internet connection), but no one grumbled and we all adapted to our new surroundings.

Our first morning in PNG, we hit the ground running and headed out to deliver our program to school kids. In a nutshell, the PNG Health Project is a health literacy program aimed at delivering healthy lifestyle and behavioural advice, while fostering a partnership between Australian and Papua New Guinean students. Over a period of three months, we worked collaboratively to plan our presentations on topics including mental health, sexual health, nutrition and exercise, oral hygiene, and drug and alcohol education. We tailored these presentations to be specific for PNG’s unique health challenges, such as educating about the risks of oral cancer from betel nut chewing, which is a common cultural practice.

The first school we attended was a prestigious girl’s school and I think we were all a little apprehensive about how our presentations would be received. Much to our delight, the girls were extremely engaged with the content, and this gave us a big confidence boost for how the rest of the week would bode.

We were asked very challenging and complex questions, which showed that the students had really listened and thought about the topics, leaving us feeling like we’d made a lasting impact.

It was incredibly rewarding when many students came up to us to share their dreams of working in the health care field as doctors and nurses, and we were able to provide encouragement first-hand.  

Between Monday and Friday we saw over 1000 students across Port Moresby. The kids were aged from five up to 18 years old, and came from a diverse range of backgrounds – from wealthy to poor, living in urban areas as well as very remote areas. All were respectful, engaged, and welcoming. We felt like we were really able to connect with the students, and their teachers, and to open up dialogues about really important topics that they aren’t exposed to in everyday lessons.  

My friend Eve was inspired to build this program after seeing a school visit by the Ashintosh Foundations’ Teddy Bear Hospital, a medical education program for primary school students run by medical students. Born in Papua New Guinea (PNG) but educated in Australia, Eve is acutely aware of the health disparities between these close neighbours. Her passion is to help bridge the health gap and to contribute to the development of the medical field in the PNG.

We are very grateful and humbled by the support we have received for this project so far. Funding initially came from the med students’ own accounts and Eve’s family, but sponsors eventually came on board. A number of organisations helped with supplies to donate, such as toothbrush kits, and UQ provided each med student with a grant to cover their flights. We were overwhelmed with applications for this year’s program and are extremely proud of the people who have volunteered their time to participate. We look forward to hearing stories from the team this year and hope that they find the program just as rewarding as we did.