Pediatric Team Visit Christmas Island

64 Found to Need Serious Care

By Dr. Kathleen Smith, pediatrician

PIMA volunteer pediatrician Dr. Kathleen Smith of La Canada, California gives an emergency breathing treatment to an infant on Christmas Island as the baby's mother and Kiribati nurse Nana look on. Dr. Smith and volunteer pediatric nurse Karen Davis saw more than 700 children during their one-week stay and identified 64 requiring serious intervention.

PIMA volunteer pediatrician Dr. Kathleen Smith of La Canada, California gives an emergency breathing treatment to an infant on Christmas Island as the baby’s mother and Kiribati nurse Nana look on. Dr. Smith and volunteer pediatric nurse Karen Davis saw more than 700 children during their one-week stay and identified 64 requiring serious intervention.

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.

Typical pediatrics clinic day on Christmas Island where hundreds of parents and children vie for position to be seen by PIMA volunteer pediatrician Dr. Kathleen Smith and pediatrics nurse Karen Davis.

Typical pediatrics clinic day on Christmas Island where hundreds of parents and children vie for position to be seen by PIMA volunteer pediatrician Dr. Kathleen Smith and pediatrics nurse Karen Davis.

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.

It won't hurt.  All the children in the family are ready to be seen.

It won’t hurt. All the children in the family are ready to be seen.

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.

Are we next?

Are we next?

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).

Volunteer pediatric nurse Karen Davis stands with some of her young 'patients.'  Nurse Karen and Dr. Smith worked with local nurses from early morning to late afternoon each day of our one-week stay on the island, seeing more than 700 children.

Volunteer pediatric nurse Karen Davis stands with some of her young ‘patients.’ Nurse Karen and Dr. Smith worked with local nurses from early morning to late afternoon each day of our one-week stay on the island, seeing more than 700 children.

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.

PIMA Awarded Highest Medal

Pacific Islands Medical Aid (PIMA) has been awarded Kiribati’s highest civilian medal for it’s humanitarian works on the islands during the past several years.

In ceremonies on Kiritimati (Christmas Island), PIMA and it’s founder, Carlton Smith, were recognized in September for their efforts to save lives and reduce suffering in some of the most isolated islands in the Pacific.

“This wonderful award really goes to the scores of volunteer doctors, nurses and others who have given of their valuable time and energy to help the good people of Kiribati,” Carlton said.