Big dark brown eyes look at me through the glass window doors. Sticky little fingers playfully tip tap the glass. A little timid, curious, anxious and joyous she stares at me and then slowly produces the most wonderful genuine smile. Little Philomena is 7 years old and is waiting for her heart surgery. I’m in Port Moresby General hospital in Papua New Guinea with Open Heart International.
A not for profit organisation that provides urgently needed medical care to patients living in developing countries. As a team of surgeons, anaesthetists, intensivists, nurses, technical staff and more we are in PNG to perform open heart surgery on children with heart defects and take care of them before and after the surgery. We also help the local teams to develop their own knowledge and skills.
My role in the team is as a paediatrician and intensive care advanced trainee. This means that I look after the children immediately after their heart surgery; help them recover from the major surgery with supportive medical care.
How can I start to explain what it feels like. Everyone thinks I’m very brave for doing this but it’s the children really who are brave. Especially the ones that are scheduled for the second part of the week.
All the children are admitted pre-operatively on the ward. They are together with their parents or often just mum or dad because they come from far and beyond; from the highlands or an island. They are in four bedded rooms and live in very close quarters for ten days.
They become one. They realise what is happening. When one of them goes of to surgery, they get a little quiet. When one of them is suffering in ICU, they come stand at the door like bodyguards. When one of them takes his fist steps after surgery, they cheer him on.
They look after each other like bothers and sisters. They push the ball in the right direction so the one who still has fresh stitches can score. Their hearts are not broken, their hearts are golden, we merely make the blood flow in the right direction…
He stands next to the bed a meter or two away. He doesn’t move. Like a beacon, steady, calm yet searching. I encourage him to get a little closer, the surgery is done , it went well, we just need to give his heart time to recover. I encourage him to hold his sons hand, talk to him. Hopeful yet doubtful, he steps in quickly bricks past his hand and then resides back to his stoic position. As his son starts to wake up, he starts to breathe, he starts to stretch. When his son takes his first steps, he sits down. When his son asks for water again, he chuckles “can’t have any yet” (fluid restriction). When his son plays bowling in the hall, he has a nap. The parents… Resilient, patient, quiet… closed books making up for it in body language.
Hesitantly I go down to the pool for a swim. It’s day zero in PNG, we just landed and had a quick visit to the hospital, we have the night off, the surgeries start tomorrow. I have only met some of the team members very briefly so far. Who are they, what drives them? Some are newbies like me but most of them are frequent flyers. When I come down most of them are already happily chatting. I dive in the pool first, by myself, some time to take it all in. Dampened under water I hear crystal clear laughter. Curiously I resurface. I want to hear what that laughing is all about. Aren’t we in PNG looking after poor sick children? Aren’t we professionals? Oh yes of course! Ever single one of them there is the “crème de la crème” in their field. They don’t joke about work but neither do they joke about jokes! After all laughter is the best medicine!
And just like that the tone is set for the trip. One team, one family fixing up one kid at a time with a never ending smile, a hug, a laugh and a tear… Embracing anything that has a heartbeat, even the theatre rat, Randy.
And you? Your support and help in fundraising was heartwarming without a doubt, generous without question and much welcomed without missing a beat! Thank you!