Two remarkable lady doctors from California didn’t know what to expect when they first set foot on isolated Christmas Island in Kiribati a couple of months ago.
Local radio had announced their pending arrival, explaining that they were coming as a Women’s Health Team, sponsored by Pacific Islands Medical Aid, to see and treat as many women as possible with strictly female medical problems.
On the drive from the small airport on the island, through the village called Banana, then Tabwakea and onward to London Village and the island’s little hospital, Dr. Theresa Woerhle, had to remark “It looks like a paradise.”
But what they found was quite different. “To the women of Christmas Island, their lives are not always a paradise,” Dr. Woehrle said.
The team was invited by the Kiribati Ministry of Health medical officer in charge, Dr. Teraira Bangoa, a caring male physician who said most of the women on Christmas Island and the outer islands “had never, ever been seen by a woman doctor.”
We were extremely fortunate to recruit an absolutely top Women’s Health Team, consisting of Dr. Theresa Woehrle, MD, MPH, Professor of Clinical and Family Medicine at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine… one of our nation’s finest; and Dr. Armaity Austin, MD, who as a professor, also teaches at the medical school and works with the Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center and Hospital
Island women poured out of their communal compounds and native huts to be examined and treated by the women doctors, aided by enthusiastic local nurses, who seemed thrilled and proud that the attention was directed toward women.
Dr. Woehrle said “we went to Christmas Island not because there was no access to health care but because many of the women there, as around the world, decline to seek care from male physicians.”
What they found was stunning.
“We quickly discovered that the majority of the problems the women were facing were infections easily treated but which they had been suffering with for months or years.” She said many women “suffer in silence” with months or years of pain and discomfort.
Nearly 200 women were examined and treated at make-shift clinics in just one week, for a full day at each village, with privacy rooms set up with sheets hung on clotheslines, and a local nurse and doctor working with each patient.
Most importantly, the PIMA doctors spent our last day on the island at the little Ronton Hospital, teaching and training nurses from each village how to diagnose and treat the most common female problems.
“We hope to return to the island within the next year to begin the process of training the clinic nurses in women’s health issues,” Dr. Woehrle said.
“The women of Christmas Island can benefit immensely through just a few rather simple interventions that we hope to accomplish on a subsequent visit,” Dr. Woehrle said.
Women already feel comfortable coming to the local nurses for prenatal care and deliveries and “we only need to train the nurses to perform speculum exams for cancer and other problems and take appropriate samples that can be diagnosed with a simple microscope.
“The nurses can be trained, using recommended World Health Organization (WHO) protocols, to look for abnormalities of the cervix with just the application of vinegar solution (acetic acid) and to treat appropriately with freezing.
“It’s a lot of healthcare bang for very little bucks,” she said.
For women on Christmas Island and the neighboring outer islands, it’s a story to be continued …
(Please help us to continue this mission with your tax-deductible donation, where 100 per cent of your donation goes toward the mission you specify, including Women’s Health, Diabetes Control, Heart Team, Eye Team including cataract surgery, urgent life-saving surgeries in the U.S., medicines and medical supplies.)
Carlton Smith, president
Pacific Islands Medical Aid, Inc.
Sheets hung from ropes provide privacy for the ladies who required examinations.
With the aid of a local village nurse, Dr. Austin interviews a patient prior to examination and treatment. For many, this was the very first time these women had ever been seen by a woman physician.
PIMA volunteer physicians Dr. Armaity Austin (left behind table) and Dr. Theresa Weohlre ( at right ) worked tirelessly for a week on Christmas Island with the aid of local nurses. They examined and treated nearly 200 island ladies who came forward, many with long-standing infections.
Island women began lining up to see seen in each village early every morning.
A Day of Learning: On the last day, Drs. Theresa and Austin, here flanked by local medical officer in charge, Dr. Teraira, (left) and Dr. Harry, meet with island nurses to review their week’s work and discuss treatment options for women who come forward in the future.