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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One thought on “Not a Scratch! The story of a barefoot doc in PNG

  1. You wild bare foot medical woman you! Reef shoes sound wise. Maybe a should come to one day and sport a matching pair of reef shoes. I could be your nurse 😉 I’m very good at applying bandaids and protect your precious feet

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