Monday, 7 November 2011 10:02 AM

Island Life Far from Paradise

Working in a rundown Solomon Islands hospital was a heartbreaking but challenging experience for two Warrnambool medical students.

After a six-week placement, fourth-year students Tien Nguyen and Ashley Nesseler from Deakin University Clinical School have returned home with a better appreciation of Australia's health system and immeasurable life experiences.

The students were taken well out of their comfort zone, with access to limited resources, rundown facilities and little back-up support.

In one instance, a young girl suffering from burns was told she would have to wait another year to see a plastic surgeon after missing a visiting specialist.

A young man whose fingers had been amputated in a work accident had to be held down while doctors cared for him because of a lack of anaesthetic.

Through all the confronting circumstances, the students returned with great respect for the resilience of the Solomon Islanders.

"It is amazing how well the people cope and amazing how well the medical staff cope with such limited resources," Ms Nesseler said.

"The hospital was very isolated and some people would have to travel for two or three days by canoe to seek medical help."

She said the small rural hospital on an outer island had been damaged by the 2007 tsunami and was falling apart.

"The blood pressure machine broke down while we were there and they didn't have money to replace it. Some basic testing has to be sent to Australia which means a four-week turnaround. In the meantime you have to listen and observe the patient and trust you are doing the right thing. It makes you really study the patient. It puts in perspective how lucky we are in Australia."

Mr Nguyen said the hospital was not structured to deal with long-term illnesses and instead concentrated on helping people presenting with acute illnesses and injuries.

"In Australia there is more support from experienced doctors and a barrage of tests at your disposal, but in the Solomon Islands you could be the be-all and end-all," he said.

"The responsibility is huge and your clinical acumen has to be very sharp, but at the same time it is also very rewarding."

While tropical diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis were prevalent, he said chronic diseases had a much greater effect on patients.

"It was difficult to see amputations and strokes that could have been prevented."

Deakin University had 20 fourth-year students undertake an elective rotation in teaching hospitals around the world.

The students have been in Warrnambool since the start of 2010 after completing the first two pre-clinical years of their course at Deakin University's Waurn Ponds campus.