Below is a feature story about Papua New Guineans going all the way across the
One mother recently brought her one-month-old daughter to Saibai because she was sleepy and not feeding well. The carer in Saibai noted a full fontanelle and telephoned the administrative centre in Thursday Island, about 120 km away, at the tip of the
The centre dispatched a retrieval team of doctor, nurse, incubator, ventilator and backpack of medicines to
The retrieval team left Townsville as night fell, were helicoptered back and forth from
In Townsville, ultrasonography revealed a massive lesion in the left cerebral hemisphere, which was confirmed by magnetic resonance imaging to be a tumour.
Meanwhile, the mother, who spoke very little English and whose life to that day had been spent in rural simplicity, was plunged into the luxuries of our modern Parents’ Unit next to our busy intensive care ward: lamp-lit hut with split bamboo floor was exchanged for electric lights and carpet; wood cooking fire for microwave; sleeping mat for huge, sprung, blanketed mattress; tropical heat for refrigerated “comfort”; nocturnal silence for the cut, thrust and whistles of intensive care battle; and family and friends for armies of strangers contending at all hours. Worse, the trees near the beach had been replaced by a strange contraption, more like a well, and there was no sea water with which to clean herself.
We wondered why she had chosen to sleep with the lights on until we realised she did not know how to turn them off. Why did she sleep on top of the bed, or was she sleeping on the carpet?
We soon learned that she had no idea how to use the microwave and stove and, in any case, had no coins to turn them on so we, of course, provided food. Why did she devour the fruit and leave everything else? We learned she was ravenous for sweet potato and cassava and perhaps a piece of fish.
We thought she might like to go outside, but she was terrified to leave the ward. The acres of parked cars and the traffic on roads running in all directions contrasted with the carless, unpaved pathways between huts in Mabaduwan.
Not surprisingly, her mental health began to disintegrate, and she became so fearful she would not even go to the toilet unless accompanied by a nurse.
We needed to talk to her — to explain things and get permission for the surgery —but were confounded by her dialect. Late on the Friday afternoon of her admission, we rang our translating service, the health clinic at Mabaduwan, the Saibai clinic, people who allegedly knew her husband on Saibai, her embassy, and various consulates to no avail, but as luck would have it, someone discovered a distant “cousin” who had a boy in our paediatric ward who had worked his way to Townsville from Mabaduwan in a similar manner. The cousin spoke English.
Conversation about the apparent diagnosis, the remote chance for surgery, the risks of anaesthesia, and so on, was tricky and took quite a while, supplemented as it was with such basic information as how to use the bathroom, and reassurances that we were bringing a change of clothing. In the end, we convinced ourselves that the mother understood matters and agreed to surgery.
Surgery revealed a fleshy mass infiltrating the brain, with necrosis and haemorrhage. Frozen section showed malignant glioblastoma. As much tumour as possible was removed, the wound closed and the baby returned to the ward, still ventilated.
After the surgery was completed, conversation became even trickier as we tried to discuss the contending kindnesses of continuation or withdrawal of high-tech support. There was no doubt about mother’s continued retreat into herself.
Ultimately, it was widely agreed to withdraw high-tech support and “let nature take its course” and, while the cousin was rallying a few friends to support the mother, we began to explore the ways of transporting mother and the baby’s corpse back to her village. She was adamant that she did not want to be separated from her daughter’s body, and we were keen to preserve what remained of her stability. It was clear that mother and daughter should travel together — one should not go with the luggage.
Problems accumulated with each phone call. No commercial airline would even think of transporting a mother with a corpse in her arms. Discreetly wrapped? No way! How about in a small crib? Not on your life, mate. I tell you, we can’t sell a ticket to a corpse.
Well then, how about doing us a favour and transporting the corpse free of charge in the luggage if we really have to do it that way? No chance — it is all tied up with regulations and corpses can only travel with the assistance of a qualified undertaker and in a proper casket.
A funeral director was asked how much it would cost to transfer one small corpse to Saibai. At least $3000, was the reply which, we figured, was probably about 3000 times the mother’s accumulated wealth.
Was there any chance the RFDS would take mother and corpse on a back load to
What if we kept the baby alive, to be extubated on
At least the airlines considered this question, but later phoned to express regrets that other passengers in the small regional plane might be challenged by the phenomenon.
Sensing it might be easier to transport the living than the dead, we postponed the extubation, which took a bit of explaining. Mother seemed to follow the logic, and phone calls to Saibai and Mabaduwan began to prepare for the possibility but, as night fell on the second day of fruitless organisation, there was no apparent answer to the problem. We hoped something would “turn up” in the morning. It did.
The RFDS plane had been dispatched to pick up two adult patients in
We still did not want to be separated from our transport incubator for the journey, which was likely to take about 10 hours, and sent one of our experienced nurses to ventilate the baby by hand. It was not clear how we would get the baby from
As our time was limited, medical staff on Thursday Island agreed to meet our team on
Off flew our little group — up the coast over the Great Barrier Reef, then over the flat scrub of the Cape with its single four-wheel-drive track, determinedly heading for the tip where it would join the shore of the Gulf of Carpentaria, which had been receding from the west. Almost three hours after take-off, mother, baby and ventilating nurse alighted on red-soiled, sparsely treed
Meanwhile, concerns had risen in the staff at
That helicopter was waiting on the airfield when our team arrived and in the hot haze of Horn, the child was passed from nurse to nurse and continued the journey home. Our team returned to
At about 4 pm, father was reunited with daughter but, taking her up, would not pass her on to anyone. He appeared to have been consumed by an isolating grief that excluded and even blamed his wife. Everyone was alarmed and no one really knew what to do, but time was passing and the helicopter needed to return before dark.
With the sun low, the family gathered around the child and the tube was removed in expectant hush . . . but death did not follow. Stillness was punctuated by weak gasps that strengthened, quickened, and went on and on, all night, and into the morning when the family wondered if it would be all right to head off for Mabaduwan so the girl could see her grandparents.
Something did expire that night — the bitterness of the father. In a transformation judged by the night nurse to be the most moving she had ever witnessed, father, mother and family were reunited. It was “the proudest moment” of the nurse’s career.
At about 10am, the dinghies were fired up and the family returned home, but I knew nothing of these latter events when, two days later, I took a call from the primary health care worker in the village in PNG. In broken English he explained the baby was now crying loudly, waving its arms and demanding food, and wondered if I had further advice? My English broke in reply.
In retrospect, this medical venture had involved multiple sea trips, six helicopter flights, two ambulances, two long-haul plane retrievals with special staff on overtime, several days of life-supporting intensive care, neurosurgery, anaesthesia, medicines, laboratory investigations, social-work support, interminable phone calls, accommodation, meals, and changes of clothing . . . all for free. In return, a small girl lived for six months.
Author details: John S Whitehall, FRACP, MRCP (
Department of Neonatology,