Two of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) most skilled surgeons joined the list of PIMA volunteer surgeons two months ago, helping overcome the critical shortage of doctors in Kiribati. Returning for the third time to Christmas Island was trauma surgeon Dr. Jennifer Smith of the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, joined by colon-rectal surgeon Dr. Beverley Petrie… who writes this month’s newsletter article. We are now sending surgeons and anesthesiologists to Christmas Island for a week each month.
In the following month, PIMA sent a five-member team consisting of trauma surgeon Dr. Lydia Lam from the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine; anesthesiologist Dr. Shalini Sharma of southern California, OB/GYN Dr. Elizabeth Lucal, pediatric surgeon Dr. Albert Chong and anesthesiologist Dr. Kirsten Randall of Providence Medical Center in Anchorage, Alaska.
By Dr. Beverley Petrie, M.D., F.A.C.S., F.A.S.C.R.S.
Dr. Jennifer Smith and I had the good fortune to be able to spend time on Christmas Island, thanks to Pacific Islands Medical Aid (PIMA). Carlton Smith generously runs this organization and through it he has done much good on behalf of the good people of Kiribati.
From the moment we stepped off the plane onto this picturesque atoll, it was clear that something meaningful was going to transpire during our week long stay. Dr. Teraira Bangao, medical officer in charge on the island, introduced us to his entire staff and made us feel most welcome.
Dr. Smith, who has been on two prior trips to Christmas Island, was impressed with the vast improvements made throughout the hospital since her last visits…thanks to PIMA.
In this modest setting, we saw hospitalized patients with various maladies including lung infections, urinary retention, abdominal pain, skin infections, slow healing wounds, liver abscesses and children with failure to thrive.
In clinic, we saw patients with peptic ulcer disease, a breast mass, hydrocele, soft tissue lesions, and many other disease processes. In the operating theater, we were able to incise and drain abscesses on two patients, perform an appendectomy and remove a sigmoid colon in an elderly man with unnatural twisting of his large intestine.
Through it all, the nursing staff was exceptional and they became an integral part of our morning hospital rounds, daily clinic and operative experience. With their assistance, we evaluated eight patients, twenty four clinic patients and performed seven operations.
We had an opportunity to explore parts of this exquisite island and interact with the hospital staff in an informal setting. We found the people of Christmas Island to be kind, family and community oriented, caring, hospitable and content.
In the end, it was with a heavy heart that we left Christmas Island as there was much work still to be done. However, the work will be passed on to our capable counterparts who will continue this vital effort that has been made possible by Carlton and PIMA.
We are eternally grateful that we were able to witness and participate in this medical journey that is clearly special. We do hope to return someday soon so we may once again contribute to this important work.
(Dr. Beverley Petrie is Associate Professor of Surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and Assistant Chief for the Section of Colon and Rectal Surgery at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.)