In a very small village, nestled in the endless tropical rainforest on the island of Papua New Guinea is where I grew up. I remember the hot, humid days, every day the same length, growing up with a people group that were living the same way they had been for thousands of years.
In many ways we were outsiders, the “white kids”, with clothes, and a different lifestyle, but in many ways we were the same–just kids, people, who all wanted the same things: to be loved, accepted, respected, listened to, trusted and understood. We lived in thatched hut on stilts–the same as every kid in the village–but our house was a little different. It had screens on the window, parts of it were sawn timber–the kitchen floor, the doors (which had locks) and later the whole floor and siding. I liked it better when it had palm branch siding and limbum (the bark of palm trees) flooring. It was very uneven, hard to keep clean, and it would disintegrate faster–and bugs would eat into it, but it was like everybody else’s house in the village, made right from the jungle–with no other machinery and equipment to make it. Most houses there last ~5 years, and then people build another one.
Rain on the tin roof
I used to love the sound of the rain on the roof. Hard rains, rains threatening to wash everything away with it. And the thunder that rolled on and on over the river valley below and the mountains around. The tropical monsoons would come during rainy season and they would usually blow in from the north or the south. My bedroom window was on the north side and I would always see the big dipper out my big screen bedroom window–upside down over the horizon, like it was about to scoop up the big umbrella trees. And on the nights when it rained, there were no stars, and the cool winds would blow over my face. I would shiver and pull up the sheet up to my neck. But then the sprinkle would blow in, felt like cool rain-kisses, I would get excited and feel cozy, and then I could hear the hard rain coming louder and louder and soon I was in a shower in my bed. My parents would come in and get us to move us out into the living room for the night. They would roll up our mattresses and cover the tiny dressers with a tarp. And we would fall asleep to the soothing sound of pounding rain on the roof.
I remember mom would hold a medical clinic every day, treating people for malaria (the most common killer), tuberculosis, skin diseases like ringworm, ulcers–that had festered so long they would often be eating into the bone, abscesses and other crazy infectious diseases and environmental hazards like people who had been gored by wild bore pigs, and sewing up a cut in my dad’s head when he gashed it open. She organized vaccination campaigns and continually worked to expand her medically knowledge. Not formally trained, she would often use the book “Where There Is No Doctor” and consult the Radio Doctor who was available twice a week. It was fun to help her in the clinic, to bandage wounds, to feed malnourished babies with failure to thrive, to paint gentian violet on people’s bodies covered in ringworm. It was from these experiences that kindness, compassion and community involvement were instilled into my siblings and I.
I had the best siblings–2 sisters and a brother (poor guy!). We had so much fun growing up together in this beautiful, lush paradise. Since 3 of us were born there, and my oldest sister was 1 year when she moved, it was all we knew. It was completely normal and even though we had glimpses of insight into our different lives, it was home, it was where we belonged and the people in the village became our family and friends. We loved to go down to the village and sit and talk with our friends, gathering mushrooms and greens from the jungle floor, or celebrating the bird or wild pig from the successful hunt of the day. We played countless games together, swimming in the river, throwing in boulders that we would dive down to find. We played under-water tag, follow the leader and had mud fights. We made mud-slides and played king of the log on our favorite log that stuck up from the bottom of the river seemingly since the beginning of time. We played all kinds of crazy made up games. The kinds that kids play when there is no tv, no video games, no Toys R Us stores, and we had virtually no toys. it forced to interact and be creative, which is something that I miss now.
I miss how simple life was, how slow and lazy the days were, how green and life-filled, how connected people were with the natural world around them. I miss the rain forest and the rain, the simple people who lived completely sustainably, whose lives left a minimal impact on the earth. I don’t miss the nights of hearing the women wailing–loudly, their cries filled with sorrow and pain and haunting–for their loved ones who had died or who were on the brink of death. Sickness and death are not strangers to the people here. Death happens in PNG frequently–the infant mortality rate in the village was 7/10, the life expectancy was ~ 45 years in the village. And it was raw, natural, naked, without make up, hairstyles, coffins and flowers–equally painful, but more accepted and allowed. I don’t miss seeing babies die from preventable diseases–I saw my sister’s namesake Sonia, die from meningitis, and the chief’s son Awadi, die from cerebral malaria. The pain, the suffering, the sorrow–that could be prevented–is too much to watch without being moved by a visceral response to do something.
Journey to becoming a doctor
And that–along with witnessing the need for healthcare and education all over the world–is what motivated me to eventually become a doctor. Since I was young, I knew I wanted to help people, but I wasn’t sure how (I had never really been exposed to any doctors). But then after traveling and working in a clinic, I was inspired by a doctor that I worked with and realized how much one person could do with such a skill set, and here I am today–after a grueling, long journey through college and medical school, and now completing my first year of residency–I am so much closer to be able to return and give back to the communities who have nothing, and who have given me so much. There are so many more stories and people who inspired, moved, helped and generously opened their lives up to me along the way. And those must wait for other posts…that I can’t wait to write!