Not a Scratch! The story of a barefoot doc in PNG

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Alita – this lovely lady helped me up the steep slope behind her village to visit the fruit and vegetable plantation.

Feet are important.  Footwear equally so.  Especially for a clumsy white girl doc like me visiting remote villages in Papua New Guinea, a tropical country just north of Australia.  I expected to learn a lot from this trip, volunteering with a medical ship providing health services to communities where health care is not easily accessible.  I didn’t expect my feet to be a source of revelation.  But then, God uses all sorts of everyday objects to teach us things about himself.

I had been to PNG before.  During my previous trip it was dry and the ground relatively flat.  Flip flops (or thongs to us Aussies) had sufficed, especially in the humid climate.  And so I packed my flip flops once again, ignoring the tiny voice in my head that suggested reef shoes would be a good investment.  Gulf Province, PNG is remote.  People travel via the network of rivers and waterways in dugout canoes, or a dinghy if fortunate enough to own one.  It rains.  Everyday.  Even when it’s not the rainy season.  You can imagine what this does to the landscape.

Each day we would load up our gear for clinics into the zodiacs (inflatable motor boats) and head out to a village.  The most challenging part of each day was getting out of the zodiac onto a muddy shore or steep embankment and helping to move huge backpacks and boxes with all our gear.  The embankments were muddy.  The trek to each village was muddy, rocky and sometimes quite steep.  I have never been a mountain goat and have always felt anxious on unsteady ground.  Nerves make my balance even worse.  Bulked up in raincoat, lifejacket, personal back pack and medical back pack, I was an accident waiting to happen!

Flip flops are great, if you want to get stuck in the mud.  Mud sucks voraciously at your foot as soon as you plant it.  Attempts to lift the leg pulled down by the maudlin mud results in a tug-of-war which invariably results in the strap giving way and the base of the flip flop dangling uselessly from a suspended foot.  Very elegant.  Thus I took to strapping my flip flops to my back pack and only donning them when we made it to our clinic area.  Meanwhile, my team mates all sported the latest in reef shoe design – streamlined shoes that fitted snugly to their feet, grips that really gripped on all sorts of terrain, water resistant breathable materials.  Have I convinced you to buy a pair yet?  Oh, how I wished I had a pair!

Mud slide!

Mud slide!

One morning we arrived at the village of Babaguna.  I stared in consternation at the hill we had to ascend.  It was very steep and smooth.  For now it was damp mud.  I resigned myself to the fact that I would probably take a tumble on my way down at the end of the day.  The village houses were built on the side of this very steep hill.  The locals had no problems scrambling up and down.  Their balance is perfect.  They never miss a step and make it look so easy.  Our clumsiness on their turf provided a few laughs.  Luckily there was usually a group of eager young men to grab out gear and hoist it up the hill wherever we went.  Sure enough it rained that day and as I slowly made my way barefoot down the slope, I took my first mudslide resulting in lovely mud smears to my cargo pants and backpack, bruising to my bum and wounded pride.

Muddy ground everywhere, the result of daily rain.

Muddy ground everywhere, the result of daily rain.

Over two weeks we went to ten different villages.  Each time I went barefoot – across shores where sharp shells were embedded in the mud, up slopes where rough stones and rocks jutted out of the mud, over rickety walkways constructed from palm branches and slippery with mud and rain.  And would you believe it, I didn’t get a single scratch to my feet.  Not a sprain, not a cut, not a bruise, not a mark.  Amazing.  I thanked God for his care and protection and reflected on this verse.

He will not let your foot slip – he who watches over you will not slumber;

indeed he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

Psalm 23:1

Yes, I slipped.  But my feet were not hurt the tiniest little bit.  God cared for my feet.  A tiny detail, but an essential thing for me to be able to go out each day and serve with this group of medicos in remote jungle villages.  A sprain could have laid me up.  A cut could have led to serious infection.  But I was okay.  However, I have vowed that whenever I return to these jungle villages along the rivers, I too will have the latest in reef shoe design!  (Another peril of bare feet – I did take a nice helping of albendazole on my return home in case of hookworms creeping into my body via my exposed feet.)

The Lord God is my strength.
He will set my feet like the deer.
He will let me walk upon the heights.

Habbakuk 3:19

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The First Day

Little Noah,

We’ve reached that day – the first day of kindergarten.  I send you off excited for the wonderful learning opportunities you are going to have this year, but also a little anxious and a little sad.  Will you be able to tell your teachers what you need?  Will you be able to ‘speak’ with the other children?  Will you be accepted?  You see, you’re pretty special to us.  We already know what a great little personality you have.  We know that you are crazy about tools and that you love to play fireman.  We know how to interpret that little glint in your eye when the joke’s on us.  We know what each approximated word is and what each little gesture stands for.  We’re pretty good at guessing your charades when you want to communicate something you don’t have the words for yet.  But your teachers don’t…yet.  Apraxia of speech is new to them, but I think you’re going to teach them something about it and show them apraxia or not, you are awesome.

First day of kindy, Noah all ready to go.

First day of kindy, Noah all ready to go.

You were so proud and excited to put on your blue kindy shirt and jumped up and down with excitement when I told you today was it – THE FIRST DAY!  Bag packed, new hat, sheets for nap time, spare clothes and the all-important lunch box.  You badly wanted to take ‘Bear’ who has shared all your naps up until this point.  We negotiated and I think you agreed he would be safer at home, where none of the other kids would be tempted to take him home.  I tried to get nice photos of you, but every time we asked you to say ‘cheese’ you said ‘tools’ instead, meaning your little lips were more like a fish than a cheesy monkey grin!

We’ve prepared for this day, meeting with your teacher, Mrs Thompson and Peta, the lady who will be your special helper this year.  You’re such a wonderful three year old boy, with your cheeky grin, love of trucks and all things that go ‘vroom’, your love of climbing and building and pulling things apart, making messes with paints and banging on improvised drums.  There’s only one thing you’re trying hard to catch up in – being able to talk.  You see, apraxia of speech challenges your communication.  You know what you want to say, but your brain doesn’t get the messages to your mouth muscles very clearly and the sounds often come out jumbled.  This scrambling gets worse with the length of the word or phrase.

But – God is good and has provided some extra special help for you this year.  While we are applying for some extra funding for a teacher aide to help you communicate, learn and interact at kindy, we may not get full funding.  However, the wonderful director at the kindergarten has decided that you are worth it.  They will provide a big person specially to help you out for four hours a day.  What an opportunity!  Someone who can get to know you, quirks and all.  Someone who can help you to practice your words and encourage you to say more and join words together as you play, learn and explore in the kindy environment.  Someone who can help you to negotiate playground etiquette and prompt you with the right words and phrases at the appropriate time and help you to interact with the other kids.  Someone who can make group time just that little bit more inviting by sitting with you for singing and sharing time, so you are not so overwhelmed by an activity you cannot fully engage in.  I’m almost jealous that I don’t get to be that person!  But I know you will be loved and well cared for.

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My little buddy.

As I leave you at the gates on your first day, I wonder what you will do.  I imagine your struggles and your joys.  I worry about your strong will in the ‘mine!’ department and if you’ll cry when frustrated or wail for ‘Mum, Mum!’ when I leave.  I feel a little sad because I know you won’t be able to tell me about your day, at least not much.  But I left and you were fine.  I came to pick you up and couldn’t even spot you.  You see, I was scanning the corners and the edges of the room expecting you to be quietly playing by yourself.  But you were right in the middle of all the other kids!  I expected your teacher to give me a list of what went wrong and what we need to work on.  She simply said,”He settled really well.  We’ve had a good day.  A bit unsettled at music time and group time, but he’s been good.”  A sigh of relief.  I asked you what you did and you said,”Play!”  That’s about all I could get out of you, so I’ll just have to imagine you inspecting the guinea pigs, digging in the sandpit, playing pirates on the fort and building castles from wooden blocks.  I know it must have been good, because you gave several big yawns and went to sleep without a fuss, ready to do it all again next week.  Sleep well little man.

Love Mum xoxo