|Confronting: Tim O'Hare spent two emotionally-exhausting weeks in PNG over his summer break based at Garoka hospital, and spent New Year with a local family.|
Now in the third year of his studies with the University of Melbourne, raised in Gisborne Tim spent last year with Monash Rural Health Bendigo as part of a unique partnership between the two universities. Students from both institutions complete their first year of clinical training together at Bendigo Health.
During that year, Tim decided he wanted to expand on the cultural safety training that was part of his studies and organised a cultural awareness seminar for students. “We did cultural safety online modules, but nothing that involved actual people.” So he contacted the Bendigo District Aboriginal Corporation (BDAC) who were delighted to have someone ask for their help.
Tim had tried to gauge students’ prior knowledge of Aboriginal health. Some of the responses questioned the need for an Aboriginal co-op: why can’t they just go to a normal GP? A social worker and family counsellor from BDAC came for an afternoon and talked about local issues. “It’s really close to home, but a lot of people in Australia don’t fully understand yet. It doesn’t get taught in high school that well,” he said.
Growing up, Tim never had plans to study medicine. Then about four years ago, he accompanied a local Gisborne doctor to Cambodia as a volunteer and saw what you can do with a medical degree. “I kind of thought you worked as a GP or you worked in a hospital, but then saw the breadth of it and that got me interested,” he remembered.
He’s since been to a few countries in Asia and back to Cambodia volunteering. It was to Cambodia he wanted to return over his summer break. “But the timing wasn’t right.” So through a contact of his mother’s he learned about PNG. “I look into it and learned more about the highlands and the history of PNG. It sounded really interesting. I’d read about PNG back when I was doing my science degree. It’s really interesting in terms of anthropology; there’s over 600 languages still spoken there.”
The Highlands Foundation put him in touch with Garoka hospital. “They were rapt to have me visit and help out and learn, and teach if there was anything I could teach,” said Tim. “You had complete freedom to work wherever you want. You could introduce yourself to the doctor or the surgeon or the nurses or the midwives. So I just tried to do a bit of everything. I met the Public Health Director of the hospital and that’s who I went out to the rural clinics with.”
In the emergency department he saw extreme presentations that you wouldn’t see in Australia. “Ill kids were the hardest to see, especially when most are cases that would be easily treatable if the resources were there.”
He saw that the problem was not lack of skill on the part of doctors or staff, but lack of money. “It might have only been a couple of dollars for a certain drug but the hospital ran out and they just couldn’t get it. You’d see kids with something like typhoid or meningitis – they’d only get partially treated one day and the next day they wouldn’t have any drugs, so they’re just suffering and not getting better. That was pretty hard.
“Seeing such extreme suffering and poverty as the cause, not necessarily any other cultural thing. All these complicating things play a role, but at the end of the day it was just an equity thing.”
He found it hard coming back. “You can get there in a day. You learn the history a bit. PNG was a part of Australia and then got independence in the 70s. And then just seeing how poor access is for so many people to just really basic healthcare. That was pretty challenging.
“Doing something in global health or education or development have always interested me. But it [PNG] has definitely made me sure that’s something worth doing.”
As he gets further into his studies, his PNG experience keeps things in perspective. “There’s a lot of stress in medical school which is a shame because it makes people feel busier than they need to be. But it’s actually been really relaxing to get back to medical school. Every day I think: wow, what a great opportunity I’ve got!”