Nothing that is truly worthwhile ever comes easy. This is a very worthwhile project so, sure enough, we’ve had more than our fair share of challenges getting here. I first heard of the Kapuna hospital rebuild after a time of prayer and fasting. My beloved was struggling on many fronts, and I was struggling by extension. I know the Lord is Good and his timing is perfect, and yet I called out to him “how long Lord?”. When I saw the video calling for workers my heart was stirred and I cried- “could this be the next thing for us?” I was afraid to give voice to my hopes, they were too precious and I was frightened of misunderstanding.
What I found was so surprising as to be miraculous. Mister Cautions, aka Mr Worst-Case-Scenario was positive, more than positive, enthusiastic. You could have bowled me over with a feather. And so we began making plans. The signs seemed to be there, my clinic was closing after key people had left meaning my work situation was in a state of flux anyway. A dear friend of Matt’s needed a place to stay for a few months and was eager to rent our house. So we applied to take our children and go and live in the tropical swamp.
They were excited about the possibility of having Matt on board. His wealth of experience in industrial supplies, his technical ability and his ability to solve problems made him just what was needed for this project. But me, well they already had nurses, local nurses with the language, culture and experience. Perhaps I could teach nursing? The training school would see when they met me. Registering me with the PNG Nursing Council would be costly. It is not the PNG way to make hasty decisions and despite having been here before, I was an unknown quantity. Again, I sought the Lord “what on earth does this all mean?!, please help me understand!” It was agreed that I would be registered, not for ward work, but for wider nursing administration work. Two days later we were handed a stack of $50 notes – exactly the right amount of money to cover our registration costs. My discouragement turned to joyful trust once again.
There were delays to our departure, and then more delays. The project funders needed some changes made to the proposals and the rebuild would not be starting in September after all. In November we found out our visas could take some weeks to process and a couple of weeks after that we were horrified to hear it could take until March before we had visas in hand. By this stage we had already rented our house in anticipation of the move. Matt had resigned, and my own boss was awaiting a formal resignation letter from me also. We were staying with Matt’s parents who were gracious in their hospitality, but had not anticipated having us for a long time. They were themselves retiring and moving house in early January. But there was nothing to be done. We waited, prayed, and waited some more. Finally I got the much anticipated call from the PNG High Commission, our visas were available for pick up. It had taken every one of the 20 working days of the suggested timeframe, but the March ‘worst case scenario’ never eventuated. We could finally rest in the plans that we had made, the plan that had been in my heart for so many years.
We took a long holiday over Christmas to spend with family and friends. We stayed at Raumati, the summer place, my turangawaewae from boxing day until the 12th. We had restful days reading and swimming at the beach. We had the extended family with us and we took the time we needed to settle ourselves. We had Tayla, Matt’s first born, to stay with us and took our leave of her with tears and the heartache of wishing that she did not have to sacrifice for our plan. In the end, the timing was perfect.
We spent three nights in Brisbane. The children experienced their first plane journey and did very well, but not so well as to make us regret the stop over. We took the trip of a lifetime to Morton Island off the coast of Brisbane and saw dolphins, dugongs green turtles and other creatures playing. The conditions were perfect and the sand island was a paradise on earth. Arriving into Port Moresby (POM), though, we got back into the challenges.
“You’re not in Kansas now Dorothy” I thought as I boarded the plane. I saw plenty of Australian men – a homogenous group of balding middle aged oil company executives, engineers with the occasional civil servant in the mix. I saw a few PNGs, but only one or two women and only one other child on the plane. Stepping out onto the tarmac the wall of heat hit me. Even after 3 nights in Brisbane and all the mental preparation I was still not ready for it. We waited at the terminal – the excruciatingly obtrusive tone of our skin and the presence of the equally pale children made us a source of polite curiosity as we waited for the friend of a friend to pick us up. We waited. And we waited. The children were thirsty. Mercy was crying. I had no water. I decided that we had been forgotten and called the name of a reliable taxi driver to come and pick us up. Then the friend arrived. She had thought our plan was landing ¾ hour later.
POM is a sprawling city reminding me every bit of Tanzania, or the South African townships I had stayed in, but with more rubbish. It’s a crazy mixture of developed and developing world all mixed together and shaken for good measure. There are expensive hotels and shopping centres, and if we were taking another kind of journey I may have seen more of that. But for the journey we were on it was the back roads, past the ditches, the roadside stalls selling just a few items, the children with bare feet, the hillsides without trees, the smouldering cooking fires, the graffiti and the gates with ‘security guards’ posted at the entrance to any functional place of business or residence.
Mapang Missionary Home is a unique place with a long history of serving ‘missionaries’ and Christian workers for decades. For us it was a haven, a safe place to land and to rest. We ate together in the dining room with other guests, I played old hymns and new songs on the piano, read a book or two and the hosts helped us arrange ourselves and our luggage for the next leg of the journey, into the bush. We were to fly out on Wednesday. On Tuesday we received word that we had been bumped off our flight.
While Exon-Mobil pumps crude oil out of the Gulf Province, one of the paybacks to the locals is that they fly hospital and associated workers into the Gulf for free on their aircraft. Sometimes space is available and sometimes it isn’t, and sometimes the space that was there the day before has disappeared. No space for us on Wednesday, or Thursday or Friday. On Saturday AusAid had charted and aircraft to pick up their officials who had been attending the Community Health Worker Graduation Ceremony at Kapuna. Fortunately for us we were able to be the ‘back fill’ on the aircraft heading in. We had to be at the airport at 6.30am for the 9am flight. Thunderstorms were predicted for our boat ride after we disembarked. We packed our rain coats and our families at home started praying about thunderstorms.
At 6.30am we duly arrived at the Tropicair terminal. The security guard would not let us enter the compound. We were too early – “come back later”. We did. At 8am we e returned “Why are you here so early? The flight is at 11am to Purari” they said, but we refused to be deterred. Some others of our party flying to Kapuna were arriving. The securities took pity on us and let us into the compound. We waited. They weighed our luggage. They weighed us, and we waited some more. Past 9am, no sign of a pilot. It must be an 11am flight after all. Then Isaiah vomited.
Isaiah has two speeds: full on or asleep. If he is stationary there is usually a very good reason and if he complains of cold in New Zealand, let alone a tropical morning with the mercury hovering around 33degrees, he is sick. My medical bag was in my pack and had already passed through to be loaded but I spoke nicely to the official and went around the back and retrieved it. His fever was 39.7 and he was lethargic. I gave him paracetamol and water. Isaiah was vomiting into a plastic bag as the plane taxied down the runway.
Mercy enjoyed the aeroplane ride, her third ever, in the 9 seater prop plane. We flew through a couple of rain storms and she loved every minutes of it. Poor Isaiah though, slept through it all. He doesn’t remember me pointing out the narrow strip of grass amongst the jungle or the winding tributaries of the Purari river as they snaked their way towards the sea carrying and immeasurable volume of water and silt with them. Isaiah was unable to get off the plane by himself. Matt lifted him and layed him down on the gravel near the plane. I tried to get his long pants off him and put up my umbrella to shade him.
There was a boy who had come up from Kapuna with the AusAid officials for transfer to POM General Hospital. He had fallen from a coconut tree and impaled himself on a sharp stick damaging his urethra and giving him urinary retention. He had a catheter and was draining profuse haematuria. He had been brought up by stretch and the pilot was reluctant to fly him out. Fearing that he might collapse en route, the pilot was asking if medevac was more appropriate. Even without assessing him I could ascertain that is injury was not very recent and that he was alert and able to sit up so likely stable enough for the hour long flight. I pointed this out to the pilot and offered to assess him. This seemed sufficient and the small boy was loaded into the aircraft and Isaiah was loaded onto the now vacant stretcher.
Matt and one of the AusAid visitors carried Isaiah down to the Oil Company Purari base where personelle come in and out to work on the pipeline. Like a great open garage built over planks it offered all the necessary shelter in the jungle. We availed ourselves of a water cooler from inside an air conditioned container and a flush toilet, like alien things from another world amidst the verdant growth and the mud and the warm clawing air. I checked Isaiah’s temperature again, 39.8 with resp rate around 50. He would no longer take water. I started praying as he lay in the shade. Aaron, the Oil Company guy, took Isaiah and I down to the boat in his air conditioned 4 wheel drive. Isaiah lay on the back seat until the last possible minute. Once everything else was loaded I took my place and Isaiah was brought down by stretch and somehow we got him into the boat. He was in and out of consciousness so he lay in the bottom of the boat and I sat next to him covering him with my lap lap [sarong], wetting his forehead from time to time and with my hand on his back, counting his resps as if I didn’t already know how sick he was.
It was a beautiful journey. The predicted thunderstorms remained a perfectly tolerable distance off to the east and the canoe was fast. Our driver kept a good pace, pausing only to change fuel or if we passed a dugout so as to not disturb our fellow travellers with our bow wave. Traveling quickly gave us the first sensation of being cool that we had had since arriving in POM and the natural beauty of the place is astounding. The clouds were incredible, great billowing cumulous, high wispy altostratus. I remembered Da Vinci’s cloud sketches and promised myself that I would sit down and so some of my own one day.
The journey wore on. I shared a papaya with my grateful boatmates. Manoa, who had travelled with us from POM helped me keep Isaiah covered in the laplap. Mercy enjoyed the fast ride, but Isaiah lay in the boat, unseeing. Finally we rounded the final bend in the river and Kapuna was suddenly upon us. The tide was out. There was a good stretch of mud to get the boat up before it could be unloaded. Everyone but Isaiah and I jumped out and helped push the boat up the river. I felt a regal wave was in order, but I was mainly just relieved to have finally arrived. Isaiah walked a few steps after being helped out of the boat. He took a very little bit of water and then lay down on the grass again. A friend retrieved a wheelbarrow and he was taken down the path to our new house. I laid him down on a thin mattress on the livingroom floor. The stairs were too steep to get him into bed.
They call the housing here ‘bush luxury’ and it is not too dissimilar to glamping, but with a lot more heat and plenty of bugs. Out house was two stories of unlined, diesel-stained wood, with shutters for windows, cold running water, a flush toilet and even a washing machine and freezer to use as a fridge with the 4 hours of electricity daily in the evening. Having such a home, while surrounded by such simplicity of living, feels immensely luxurious despite the challenges of living here.
The doctor came. Not much to be done for Isaiah, he was alert enough when she passed by. I asked for oral rehydration solution. He would not take it. He wouldn’t take watermelon either, or pineapple. He slept. The other doctor came around with dinner. I explained how worried I was. His fever was still far too high, I couldn’t get him to drink. I was thinking it was time for IV fluids and was well ready for a night in the hospital. She made him a milo. A MILO!!! He drank it! His fever broke. He turned a corner and the knot in my stomach unclenched. We had arrived, it was going to be ok.
We settled down for the night in beds graciously made for us before we had arrived. Isaiah called me every hour to change his bed. He had profuse watery diarrhoea and couldn’t get to the toilet. I ran out of linen. I took him downstairs and made up a bed with wet sheet over a thin mattress under the dining table so we could hang the mosquito net over him. The power finished for the night. I came down to him by torchlight. He dirtied both towels. My torch battery ran out. I stumbled down in the dark and tried to clean his bed with the dirty towels. I had no disinfectant. He dirtied my lap lap and my kimono. I blessed the friend who had given me a small bottle of hand sanitiser. Finally morning came and with it the light.
Matt wasn’t feeling well. I needed to get help. I borrowed bed sheets and bleach, rags and towels. Someone brought bread for our breakfast, but no one could eat. I was exhausted. I set up three mattresses with wet sheets in the living room to nurse everyone close to the bathroom. I put stories on the ipod and hooked up a speaker. I tried to keep each person’s identical cup separate somehow. I bleached the dishes and the toilet. It was Sunday so the power was on for Church. I didn’t go to worship with others, I stayed home to do laundry. I hung things off our beautiful balcony. I rested with the kids. Matt cried. “Remind me why we’re doing this again?” That night Isaiah was able to get up to the toilet and I had head torches for us all.
On Monday the toilet stopped working. Isaiah was still not eating. He was crying for home and Matt had gone in to start work. I was exhausted. I went to find Matt and when he couldn’t come I went to ask a friend to help find the doctor for Isaiah. I vomited on the path at her feet. I staggered back to the house and lay down with my sick son. Thankfully Mercy seemed to bounce back and was all but recovered as I was coming down with the bug. Matt also got of relatively lightly as well. He came home to look after us. I lay in my mosquito netted bed sleeping feverishly in the heat, and then suddenly cold despite 35 degree heat. The doctor brought medicine and asked Mercy to be my 5 year old nurse. Mercy took the responsibility very seriously. I rested.
The next day the drain layers got to work to fix our plumbing. In the hot sun they worked with shovels digging out the dense waterlogged clay from around our tank and digging a large trench to sort out the overflow. The plumbing was restored and what a wonderful thing plumbing is. I took some food, so did Isaiah.
The next day we took Isaiah for a walk to see the village. He knew nothing of the coconut trees, the paw paw trees, the pineapple patches. He had not met the village boys who catch fish with bows and arrows they make from coconut fronds and was incredibly homesick. We showed him the gardens, the jetty out to the river, we showed him his school built out over the swamp. We took him to the playground. It was all beautiful, hot, so very hot, and beautiful. We had finally arrived. It was such a hard journey, but we had arrived.