Access to basic health services by almost 80% of the Solomon Islands population that reside in rural areas continue to remain a challenge.
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.