64 Found to Need Serious Care
By Dr. Kathleen Smith, pediatrician
Children peaking at you through their mother’s skirts, shyly touching you and running away giggling at their bravery, gently holding their brother or sister when one was examined and finally giving you a big hug around the ankles.
These are the images that keep reappearing every time I remember and tell someone about my trip to Christmas Island.
I had been approached in the summer of 2012 to participate in a pediatric mission to Christmas Island. Of course, I had never heard of it but was intrigued by the prospect since these children had never seen a pediatrician. Doctors were for Nana or Mama or Papa but not for them. Naturally, they would be shy but healthy living on an island where the natural diet is fish and rice. It would be a wonderful chance to see a new community of the world’s children.
September, 2012 found myself and a team of two from Mending Kids International joining Mr. Carlton Smith, the founder of Pacific Islands Medical Aid (PIMA), in the first pediatric team to visit Christmas Island.
It had been announced at church meetings, at the schools, at the maneabas (meeting houses) that a doctor and nurse would only see children for a ‘check up’ and if any were interested, they were to visit the maneabas on the chosen days.
Little did we anticipate the interest and enthusiasm the families would show. In a matter of 5 1/2 clinic days, we saw more than 700 children with problems ranging from vomiting and diarrhea to ear infections to cerebral palsy to heart disease to congenital problems…with 64 needing serious intervention including surgery and heart treatment.
The families were fascinated that a physician and nurse would take the time and energy to see their little ones. Their only resource for regular medical care was the local village clinic staffed by amazing nurses who mostly had been trained in their capital of Tarawa and some in Fiji.
Unfortunately, the nurses do not have the medical supplies or resources to handle any complicated medical problems so many of the children live with conditions which would be handled easily in the States. As a pediatrician, I was examining, teaching, explaining and finally attempting to treat problems with what I had on hand.
I was learning just as much as I was teaching about a culture where there are no orphans, no child is ever left alone. They are included and enveloped in their family’s and their community’s love and care. It is a very special place.
I have been asked if I would go back and the answer is always yes. There is such a need for medical care and for medical supplies as basic as antibiotics and asthma medication.
The island has only two asthma machines for an island where wheezing is prevalent. Children need wheelchairs, need medication, need so much and yet have one of the highest immunization rates in the world because their nurses are sure every child is cared for and receives the available medical vaccines.
It is an island of contrasts. Children playing in the ocean and yet have draining ears due to preventable infections. And what always brings you back are the smiles and hugs of those same children who were crying for their ‘check up’ but telling their friends it was easy and they should go see the doctor.
Christmas Island’s children are a special community of laughter, smiles and hugs.
(Dr. Kathleen A Smith, M.D., FAAP, is board certified in pediatrics, has practiced at Descanso Pediatrics in La Canada, California since 1983 and teaches second year medical students at the University of Southern California).
Among the 64 children found to need special medical care, 13 require pediatric surgery, 13 have heart problems, 9 have serious eye problems, 4 need orthopedic help and others need neurosurgery, plastic surgery, urology and other help.