One of the first things my dad and I packed for our hike across New Guinea was our medical supplies. To make sure that our trip wasn’t ruined by infection or illness, we put together a very thorough first aid kit. Our fellow hikers were just as well-equipped. Among us, we had ointments and antibiotics, Ibuprofen, antihistamines, steroid creams, eye drops, bandages, splints, and more.
We had been informed there was minimal access to healthcare in PNG, and virtually no healthcare once we were on the trail. In fact, the villages we were hiking though were so remote that in order for people there to get to a clinic, they would have to hike for several days—often on treacherous trails.
Papua New Guinea, with a population nearing 7 million, has fewer than 400 doctors. And of those 400, only a handful work in rural areas—where 87% of the population resides. This absence of any kind of healthcare was made apparent to us while we were on a rest day in the village of Laronu. We were sitting around for the day, waiting for our re-supply helicopter, when a young boy approached Julie, a fellow trekker, held out his arm and asked her if she could “fix this.” Julie immediately grabbed her pack and dug out her first aid kit. She applied some antibiotic ointment on his infected cuts, wrapped his arm in a bandage and sent him on his way. But soon, word spread. An hour later we had a line of at least 30 villagers, all seeking treatment for their ailments, or for those of their family members. By then we all had our first aid kits out.
We treated a little boy who had tripped over a pot of boiling water and burned his arm, and another child with a tropical ulcer so big it looked as if he had taken a machete blow to the head. My dad offered up a dose of his antibiotic eye drops to a man with persistent pink eye, the same drops, it turns out, that I would need later in the hike. And the people kept coming, huddling close in the waning sunlight, waiting their turn.
As we treated infected cuts and bandaged open sores, villagers went about their business. Children played soccer, running barefoot over rocks and dirt without even a grimace. Women carried buckets of water from a nearby mountain stream while others crouched around a cooking mumu filled with pig meat, sweet potatoes, and greens.
Despite the sickness and hunger and malaria outbreaks, life in the village goes on. The villagers seemed content. I, however, was not. That night, I told my dad that I wanted to figure out a way to get medical supplies to the villages along the trail. At the very least, antibiotic ointments for skin infections, but, ideally, antimalarial drugs and mosquito nets. Easier said than done. But having experienced the generosity and friendship of the villagers, I am determined.