WHEN Dr Kevin Pondikou arrived at Rumginae Rural Hospital in the Western Province he was quite happy to have found a job.
But the challenges that confronted him quickly brought to the fore the reality of rural medical service provision. Within a few days, he knew it wasn’t going to be an easy journey.
“The people live a very tough life even though we have a mine in the province,” he says. “Food is a problem. Cash is a problem. Many people live a very impoverished life.”
Rumginae is located in the North Fly District. Apart from the hospital, the former mission station has an airstrip and a training school for community health workers and a primary school.
While there are foreign missionary doctors working in Rumginae, there is a desperate need for Papua New Guinean doctors to take up positions at the rural hospital.
Without mobile phones, social media, and the internet, Rumginae would be a place forgotten. The hospital’s website is used by the missionary doctors to extend their call for help.
Government assistance is very limited and much of the help comes from missionary families overseas. They have a list of needs that is posted regularly on the website so that family members and donors can send the help they need.
When Kevin Pondikou arrived three years ago, he was the first Papua New Guinean doctor to work at Rumginae Rural.
His journey leading to his appointment as a doctor was not easy.
From an early age, he recalls having to deal with the stigma associated with having a family member with a mental illness.
His mother suffered from a form of psychosis and, at the age of 11, Kevin shut himself away from the world around him.
“She was unwell and as a nuclear family we accepted it. But it was difficult. I didn’t have a lot of friends because of the stigma of having a mentally ill parent.”
For most of his pre-teen and teenage years, Kevin’s interaction with people outside his immediate family was minimal. It was a period that lasted about 20 years. His mother passed away and then in 1996 Kevin’s older brother died leaving a large void in his life.
“He wanted to be a pilot and I wanted to be a doctor.”
About six years ago, Kevin faced his own mental health issues. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a psychiatric condition that is manageable but largely misunderstood in Papua New Guinea.
With little awareness in the community, Kevin went through one of the most difficult periods in his life.
He was assaulted and had his arm broken. Then he was arrested for breaking the windscreen of the hospital vehicle at Nonga Base Hospital in East New Britain where he had worked. Things got worse.
“I was in the police cell for one night and then I was sedated. When I woke up, I found myself at Laloki Psychiatric Hospital in Port Moresby.”
Kevin documented almost everything on social media and his arrest was published in the newspapers. Later he appeared on television after he was brought to Laloki and made a public appeal for help on social media.
After six weeks in Laloki, he was released. Having no means of supporting himself, he contacted staff at Rumginae Hospital.
“I was told to go to the website and fill in an application. Then I was given a ticket and travelled to the Western Province.”
“Life is much better here,” he says. “I have achieved a lot more in the last three years than before.”
Dr Sharon Brendon, one of the missionary doctors who made it possible for Dr Pondikou to work in Rumginae, has been helping to get the medication necessary to treat his bipolar disorder.
Managing bipolar has opened up a new chapter for Kevin. With help and support, his skills have been put to good use in an area that desperately needed good doctors.
“People die unnecessarily,” he says. “For some, it takes seven days to get to hospital. That shouldn’t be happening in 2017.”
There are many painful stories about life in rural Western Province as seen through the eyes of a Papua New Guinean doctor. He has taken to Facebook to write about the success and challenges. While doctors are some of the best trained professionals when it comes to handling personal emotions, it is sometimes difficult to separate the personal emotion from the work.
Dr Pondikou recalled a case where a woman suffering from TB and anaemia. Writing on Facebook in 2016 he said: “She was flown here by our Missionary Aviation Fellowship pilots based in Rumginae in what was a last ditch effort to save her life.
“This courageous woman was suffering from what turned out to be disseminated tuberculosis with heart failure secondary to lung disease.
“A long term missionary at Yehebi, Dale, and his wife had sponsored her and her husband’s tickets to fly to Rumginae. It was another glimpse into the awe inspiring work that missionaries continue to do for rural Papua New Guinea.”
Dr Pondikou recounted that the brave woman, even in the last hours of her life continued to feed her child with the rice she was given. But it was clear she was going to die.
“We had to let others know that she was going to die. So we organised for the plane to come. The missionary, Dale paid K3,000 for the charter. She was taking her last breaths. And just as a plane arrived, she died.
“The husband was crying and, you know in rural Papua New Guinea, when people cry you can feel it. It was just heartbreaking.”
The woman’s body could not be flown to her village just yet. As per regulations, the MAF plane could not carry a body without a body bag. Rumginae hospital didn’t have body bags. So someone was sent on a PMV to Kiunga to buy a body bag and return.
Looking back, Dr Pondikou speaks with a hint of regret saying he could have done things better even with the difficult conditions.
“I felt that I should have been more professional and left the woman in the village. I made a personal decision to bring her to the hospital.
He is now appealing to young doctors to go and work in rural areas of Papua New Guinea. He says, the pay is not good but it is important that doctors deliver much-needed services to places as remote as the Western Province.