Dear Editor – How many know of the extent and nature of the dedicated community service being undertaken in Honiara and in the remote Marovo region of the Solomon Islands?
The behind the scenes work by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the Solomon Islands Planned Parenthood Association (SIPPA) and Brisbane-based doctor Malaika Perchard, and her team of medical volunteers goes unspoken, but the facts would surprise anyone.
The YWCA works tirelessly, round the clock, often seven days a week, to help the many victims of family violence and sexual assault, even caring for children under 15 years.
Their work involves counselling, advising on reproductive health, fellowship and teaching livelihood skills, even job finding in some instances.
The YWCA has little by way of resources and virtually no money, often the workers pay for things from their own pockets, such as sewing materials and cloth for screen printing.
The SIPPA works in close cooperation with the workers of the YWCA and the focus is on social hygiene matters and dealing with those who are found to have sexually transmitted infections (STI’s), as well as those found to have HIV infections.
Overall, the SIPPA handles all Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights matters, being a main focus, and currently is aided by the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) through the YWCA World program.
The Solomon Islands Ministry of Health is the controlling Ministry but SIPPA is mandated to deal with youth health issues and operates a Clinic near the Red Cross Centre in China Town.
The YWCA in the Solomon Islands is helping those with the smallest voices, so to say, and despite the odds, is making inroads in tackling reproductive health issues and social concerns in the community and beyond.
The local YWCA has issued a Manual of guidance for reproductive health trainees and workers and the Manual is now used by other YWCA organisations in several Asian and Pacific countries.
The YWCA and their partners the SIPPA, together with the aid from Australia, is making a real difference and we should all be extremely grateful for the services delivered behind the scenes.
I referred to the work being done by doctor Malaika Perchard and her team of volunteer medical specialists and I was, frankly, amazed by what I read of her voluntary work in the rural area of Marovo Lagoon.
To do justice to what is being done, and again out of the public eye, let me quote in full a piece which I discovered in the local publication Solomon Times on Line just the other day.
“For the last eight years however, teams of volunteer medical professionals from around the world have been donating time and energy to help residents of these remote islands. Brisbane-based doctor Malaika Perchard is one of them.
Earlier this year, Dr Perchard joined a small team of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, dentists and other medical professionals on a volunteer mission to the Marovo Lagoon. An hour local plane flight from the Solomon Islands capital of Honiara, Marovo is a remote area home to 30,000 people spread across 700 square km.
Though the benefits of voluntourism operations have been debated greatly in recent times, Dr Perchard feels this particular operation provides a life-changing service.
A collaborative effort by three organisations, the medical tours are organised by Marovo Medical Foundation, an American NGO; Solomon Islands charity Solutions Pa Marovo; and Uepi Island Resort, who provide logistic support and resources.
Mostly promoted via word of mouth, the missions have grown over the past eight years to include medical professionals from all nationalities and disciplines.
“A friend told me about the medical missions several years ago,” Dr Perchard says. “She had been on a trip and explained how vital it was to the local people. I was really keen to take part, but I was doing my exams so it wasn’t the right time.”
In May this year the stars aligned and Dr Perchard was finally in a position to join the two-week mission – and she says it was a life changing experience.
“This program has been going for several years; it’s been continually improved over time and is now a well-oiled machine. Previously people were coming over and doing the best they could with very limited resources, but now there’s essentially an entire pharmacy on board. You write scripts, you see patients – it’s pretty amazing.”
Though challenging, Dr Perchard says the experience was hugely rewarding.
“Each morning we’d leave around 7:30 and travel by boat to that day’s location, always in a different place. We’d set up in half built warehouses, primary schools and churches – anywhere that could handle the high volume of people visiting. One day we set up in an actual medical facility, and it was probably the worst of the trip because it was so old and run down. You couldn’t believe where you were sitting.
“Organisers rotate the locations each trip so they can capture as many villagers as possible. People would distribute leaflets to surrounding islands and talk to as many locals as they can a week or two before the trip so it was fresh in their minds.
“We’d take everything with us by boat, the whole pharmacy stock. It all came with us and we’d take it back each day. Because you can never predict what you’re going to see, there were days that we’d run out of things – it forced us to find solutions.”
Dr Perchard says despite the long days, she was amazed by the patience of locals.
“The people were so beautiful, so accepting. Hundreds of people attended the daily workshops. On one particular day we saw more than 200 people who had travelled from neighbouring islands. Many waited all day to see us. They’d see a doctor, they’d try to get reading glasses, and if there’s a dentist they’d wait to see them too.
“I made it my mission to cuddle as many babies as I could.”
A purpose built operating theatre has been constructed with the help of donations and local assistance, allowing the volunteers to perform lifesaving operations.
Dr Perchard says it’s interesting how the universe works, and that a few particularly tough experiences reminded her just how important access to medical care is.
Three patients required treatment for life threatening conditions in the first two days alone, in particular a man bitten by a crocodile, and a very sick baby.
“It still gives me goose bumps,” Dr Perchard says. “If fate hadn’t put us there at that exact moment these people needed help, what would have happened to them?”
Dr Perchard is already planning to return next year, and says she’s not the only one.
“There was one GP on my trip who has been volunteering every six months for the last four years; he would have the same people returning to see him. Dr Mark would know their names and ailments like a GP here, telling patients he would see them in six months to check on their diabetes or hypertension. It was beautiful to see.”
The Marovo Medical program is primarily funded through private donations and fundraising, with some medicines provided by the Solomon Islands government.
Volunteers from all medical disciplines are needed, from doctors and nurses to dentists and anaesthetists, as well as people to provide general support.”
How lucky Solomon Islands is to get such dedicated help and I, for one, say thank you to doctor Perchard and her volunteers, together with the sponsors of the medical aid project. I’m sure you would all join me.