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Shipping Hope to Papua New Guinea

Medical ship - Kim Nguyen with patients

Kim Nguyen is a trained eyecare specialist from Australia. She has volunteered twice on the Medical Ship that supports Papua New Guinea in terms of health care. Her work with the charity “Youth With A Mission – Medical Ships Australia” (YWAM) has been a memorable experience for her.

As the ship is approaching the harbor of Port Moresby, the anticipation is rising. Inhabitants of Papua New Guinea have travelled from far away to the capital and are awaiting the arrival of the Medical Ship. The floating hospital brings health care to the Oceanic country which is comprised of one main island and about 600 small ones.

Kim Nguyen is one of the health care professionals on board. She is volunteering with the charity “Youth With A Mission – Medical Ships Australia” (YWAM). The Medical Ship is supporting the country with its outreach programs that last between one and three weeks, stepping in where the capacity of local hospitals is exceeded. Along with eyecare specialist Nguyen, there are general practitioners, midwifes, dentists and many other health care professionals on board of the ship.

Nguyen is attending patients with eye-related health problems such as cataract. Hundreds of miles away from her former workplace at ZEISS in Australia as a Clinical Support Specialist for Ophthalmic Systems, she is changing people’s lives for the better.

Language barriers and other challenges

Nguyen travelled on different routes during her two stints as a volunteer. On the second trip, she landed on remote islands without major havens, which ensured that not only easily accessible areas but also very rural ones and the smaller islands of Papua New Guinea got support from YWAM’s medical team.

According to Nguyen, Papua New Guinea’ s richness in languages made communication at times challenging. The country is considered the most linguistically diverse on earth. “We were talking with our hands a lot”, she remembers. “Not everyone speaks English, especially not in the rural areas. The younger population generally spoke more English and for what could not be expressed in words, we used gestures.”

Cooperating closely with Papua New Guinea’s National Department of Health, Provinces and Districts as well as village leaders and health workers is very important to YWAM. In the past, local health care professionals have joined the outreach programs and have participated in the Medical Ship’s training programs. The benefit of the collaboration is that the volunteers from abroad and the local medical staff can equally learn from each other. This is ultimately impacting patients’ treatments positively. The cooperation is the first step towards continuing care for the patients of the Medical Ship. As the health care professionals of the floating hospital travel to different locations every three to four days, a network of local and foreign medical staff is vital to ensure that patients get further support after the departure of the ship.

Medical ship YWAM
The arrival of the Medical Ship is highly anticipated by the population of Papua New Guinea. © YWAM

An eye-opening experience

For Nguyen, the experiences she has gained on the ship were eye-opening. As a trained Orthoptist, she took care of the patients before and after eye surgery and undertook checkups. Access to eyecare specialists like ophthalmologists, optometrists, orthoptists and nurses is critical in Papau New Guinea due to its high sun exposure, which contributes to a high incidence of rapidly progressing eye diseases.

“Eyecare protection and regular checkups make a great difference but are not easily accessible in the rural areas of the country”, Nguyen knows. “People all over the world suffer from cataract. However, when the sun radiation is strong, and a cataract is not treated promptly, we find that its condition is more mature.”

Giving Bray back his long-lost gift of sight

Just like for many other volunteers on the Medical Ship, the time on board was a rollercoaster of emotions for Nguyen. She treated patients such as the 17-year old Bray who have been waiting for a very long time to see an eyecare specialist.

When Nguyen first met Bray, he had a cloudy eyesight and all he was able to see was light and dark shadows. For three years, no one was able to fix the boy’s eye problems. After years of uncertainty, Bray finally got his diagnosis from the eyecare specialists of the Medical Ship: cataract in both eyes. The good news was that a routine operation could give him back his eyesight.

Medical ship - Health care professional
The extensive medical equipment on the ship enables the health care professionals on board to undertake surgeries and treat medical conditions. © YWAM

Nguyen took care of Bray during his treatment. She was responsible for his pre-surgery check-ups and was also with him when the bandages were removed after surgery. “It’s a very special moment, being present when patients with poor eyesight are finally able to see clear again”, she remembers. “Seeing Bray smile when we removed the bandages was very emotional. When his older brother bent down to him, Bray was even more happy.”

Kim Nguyen
Kim Nguyen

“Words simply cannot describe how I felt in that moment.”

Anyone can help

The journey to making health care more accessible for all Papua New Guineans is still a long one. However, hundreds of lives have already been improved by YWAM’s medical support. The organization welcomes any form of help on their mission of supporting Papua New Guinea with health care, whether through donating money, becoming an ambassador or taking a position as a volunteer on the Medical Ship – there are plenty of options. ZEISS has been providing the organization with surgical microscopes since 2010.

In the meantime, Nguyen has recruited her sister on board of the outreach program. “After I made some very valuable experiences on the Medical Ship, my sister decided to get involved, too. Her professional background is not health care-related but there are volunteering positions in hospitality, media and other fields”, Nguyen explains. In the outreach programs on the Medical Ship, a lot of positive change is made, and the initiative gives hope to patients in the most remote areas of Papua New Guinea.

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