PNG palms

Scenic view of Papua New Guinea

I’m trying to collect and summarize my thoughts while they are still fresh in my mind. Speaking for myself, Papua New Guinea would be a (impossibly) hard place to live, given my life to this point. That fact commands an awesome respect toward Fred Hargesheimer for his vision, efforts, money, and especially the years he spent living here teaching the children and helping to guide the local villagers towards some sort of organized economic base. Similarly, I am in awe of Dr. Scott Kellermann for trading his life as a respected physician in Nevada City for Uganda, despite its massive lack of medical care. Don’t think I could do that, either. Pondering the achievements of those men however, was what I needed about 2:00 pm on a few of those hot and sweaty afternoons last week, to finish my schedule out.

Hoskins PNG airport

Air Niugini PX 843

Rather than bore you with the details of my laborious trip, I’ll skip to the summary. I had five back-to-back flights, beginning in Papua New Guinea, Australia, Singapore, South Korea, and finally San Francisco. Six hours driving, 26 hours of flight time, and 18 hours of waiting in airports add up to 50 hours of time for the door-to-door trip. As much as I like to fly, this schedule was over the top. I wish I had taken a few more days to decompress before going back to work….

Singapore has an incredible airport, including Starbucks, Hard Rock Cafe, Montblanc, Rolex, Swarovski, Bulgari, and Gucci stores, among many others. Free wifi, free charging stations for cell phones, free movies, and a swimming pool. It is the 8th busiest airport in the world. I met a Boeing engineer from Oklahoma while wearing my Oklahoma t-shirt.

Aside from the marathon travel itinerary, everything went well — the airplane food was pretty decent, got a little bit of sleep, watched a couple of movies, read a couple of books, didn’t get seated next to the screaming baby section, and my bags were checked clear through from PNG to SFO. On the flight from Brisbane to Singapore, I was seated next to Ann, a travel agent from London. She was heading to Saigon to meet up with a friend. They had planned 10 days to explore North and South Viet Nam. Note to self: hire a travel agent when you’re making your first trip to a really exotic destination. Remind me to tell you about my first (and Last) trip to Saigon that I planned all by myself.

Customs was a slick as could be and my Park-and-Ride guy picked me up within 20 minutes of my call. You guessed it, Popeye’s Chicken was my first USA meal. Fast forward to sitting here in Grass Valley; I’m looking at the enormous pile of laundry and decided to blog and watch Saturday Night Live instead.

I’ve reported everything I had planned to about our clinic by now, unless some other things come to light once our team arrives back home and we debrief ourselves. I thought I would touch on a few questions that are often asked of us who do charity work, before I wrap this up.

One of the most common comments I hear goes something like this, “With all the needs of the people here in Nevada County and California, have you thought about doing some charity work here?” That answer is always quick because it requires no thought. I do plenty of free or reduced surgery here. Some of it is requested through the dental societies, some is organized elsewhere, some is requested from the various hospitals, clinics, and non-profit agencies, like Dentistry With a Heart, or RAM. Sometimes the situation of a patient come to my attention by unique and/or individual circumstances. Occasionally I simply do some work for a patient that he needs but can’t afford. Most if not all of my colleagues I worked with the last two weeks would have similar stories to tell.

People are curious about the R&R we usually combine with a project, and whether that is a good use of funds. This too is an easy question to answer. This project was performed without any funds from our parent Rotary International Foundation. Funds were provided by the 49er Breakfast and Granite Bay (local Rotary) Clubs but were used solely to purchase equipment like the generator, air compressor, batteries and converters and to transport said equipment and some other dental supplies to Ewasse School. Patterson and Henry Schein Dental Companies donated some supplies and the Academy of General Dentistry also donated $1,000 towards our project. We volunteers paid for our own lodging, meals, and airplane tickets.

The bottom line is that we mostly sponsor ourselves to get to and from the project site. Doing dentistry is a very stressful way to spend the day and it is doubly or triply so under field conditions such as this. I didn’t feel that I could be gone from my practice longer than the project timeline itself, but that was my personal decision. I generally do prefer to take a few days to relax and recover from the stress and energy of a mission like this, and since it’s not being charged to Rotary, the ‘correctness’ of combining some R&R is a non-issue.

Finally, some people ask how we choose our auxiliary staff for our projects. Obviously dental professionals (dentists, assistants, hygienists) provide the critical manpower, but we can’t work in a vacuum. Most of us need a chairside assistant most of the time, and one person is needed to gather, cleanse/sterilize, and return instruments to the clinicians or the work comes to a screeching halt. One person can keep up with 4 or 5 dentists, but another is needed for additional dentists. We need people to help us screen, including interpreters, and administrators to help with patient supply, transportation, and funneling the patients to the docs in an efficient way.

More people are needed to supply us with power, air, and keep the equipment and mechanical things running. Vacuum tanks need to be dumped, generators need fuel, hoses need to be assembled, trash cans need to be procured, emptied, and replaced. We need to eat and drink, and often times the patients need to be fed depending on the location and their travel arrangements. People are needed to count out medicine tablets into bags and label them, or to help print post-op instructions, cut the pages in half, give referral instructions for patients who have needs we can’t provide, or who have postoperative complications after we’re gone.

We needed to be in communication with the other schools (Naou and International) several times to coordinate efforts and schedules. Several trips were made to the local pharmacy, and we needed things from the general store. Some of the needs were associated with the dental treatment, while the education and construction elements had their own logistical and practical needs.

To keep our 5 dentists, a hygienist, and one oral and maxillofacial surgeon productive, at any given time the other 11 team members and up to another 10 to 20 people were engaged, at least for part of the day. Thus, each dentist may require 2 to 4 support people for a large clinic like this to operate. Setting up and tearing down are major productions in and of themselves. Of course the system is flexible depending on the locale and the type of facility used, the number/type/specific needs of the patients. Just choosing, prioritizing, and processing the patients is one of the most difficult aspects of the program to manage.

Once the clinic needs are under control, some of the jobs vanish and others will pop up; a very dynamic situation. What we have very little capacity for is onlookers. As you can tell from my description, there is a tremendous amount of work to do for our projects, but not all the people are needed doing everything all the time, so flexibility, communication and cooperation are key. Egos and keeping track of ‘who gets the credit’ and ‘who’s in charge’ cause problems and those attitudes are best left back at home. Everyone takes a few photos, but we don’t need and can’t accommodate self appointed journalists who stand around in the middle of the action and ask questions while we’re trying to work.

I think this is a good time to end my blogging, at least until the team gets back, if there is a need to supplement the information. Thank you for your attention and interest, from me and from the team. Equally important were/are your prayers and thoughts for the safety and success of our trip. Earthquakes were very close but did not damage, the power line broke and fell down literally across the street from our guesthouse, and many miles were collectively traveled by yours truly and the team butts bouncing off of the benches without more than a bruise or two. A couple of our team had a cold or briefly upset tummy, but no Malaria or Montezema’s Revenge was experienced. Yet. Two dozen passengers were killed in a plane crash (PNG Airlines, not Air Niugini) on the Islands very close to us. The worst thing was a couple of flights were delayed and one was canceled but our safety was never an issue. There were a few skin punctures from instruments, but mostly with instruments that were sterile or unused, so no significant HIV exposures were encountered. The team has been protected or spared some very real risks over the last two weeks. Very fortunate indeed.

You who make up our support network back home are also vital for the success of the project, and you don’t get much credit. Larry Meek for instance traveled to PNG earlier this year and provided us with a ton of information and worked out the PNG support system and logistical details that served to pave the way for our successful trip. Countless people, Rotarians or not, worked behind the scenes in too many ways to mention. I don’t pretend to have a comprehensive perspective of all the duties and all of the personalities that were involved.

I am grateful to have a career that I enjoy and that allows me to contribute to the betterment of others by simply doing my day to day job, assisted by others, in special projects like this. I am equally blessed to have fallen in with colleagues that enjoy the same sort of thing and who are willing to coordinate our schedules in order to organize a health clinic like this. I was honored by my PNG patients through their varied and repeated expressions of gratitude and genuine appreciation. I’m not a newcomer to charity work, and with that background, I’m confident to say that the other local ‘workers’ (paid or not) are to be ranked among the very top of the list for their great attitude and tireless assistance. Suffice it to say we couldn’t have done the project without the heavy support of Graham King and Hargy Oil Palm, Ltd. The dental team has a pretty long collective work history, but I don’t want to neglect to thank each and every one for their contributions to the effort.

Last but not least, a special thanks to my best friend, assistant, wife, and bag packer extraordinaire, Karen. She provided much of the work behind the scenes that made me look good and allowed me to accomplish the things that I did.

Yours in Service,

Steve Leighty, DDS

Comments are closed.