This outreach, we stopped by Kawiyapo, Western Province, where I met Dabi. Dabi is twenty years old and has been in a wheel chair for the past four years. Her family took her to the hospital when she started experiencing numbness in her legs. She would have had a lump growing on her back for a while by that time, but ignored it until it started affecting different parts of her body. Dabi had active Tuberculosis growing in her spine. By the time she got diagnosed, it was too late… even now that she’s completed TB treatment and isn’t infected anymore, there’s no way to reverse the effects. The growth in her back compressed the nerves in her spinal cord, rendering her paralysed from mid-trunk down and with no control over bladder or bowel.
The doctor that saw her asked me if I could teach her some physio exercises and stretches, which I had done in the past for TB patients. But when I saw her, it struck me that this wasn’t what she needed. She was sitting in her wheelchair on the lawn close to the building we had set up clinic in. No one was anywhere close to her. A crowd was gathered at a ‘safe distance’ looking in inquisitive and in disbelief. She was a typical outcast: affected by a disease that the population knows unfortunately not enough about, left alone by fear of contracting it, and laughed at due to her misunderstood condition. I sat down by her side and talked with her. Heard her story, her challenges, saw her determination, her strength, and life. In all my time in the hospitals, I haven’t seen any wheelchair ridden person strong as Dabi.
Dabi had a very down to earth approach, and never expressed a “woe is me” attitude. Having dealt with the reality of her condition, Dabi believes that diseases like hers are part of a normal life in the village. My thoughts kept wandering to my knowledge of TB, and it’s cure if diagnosed early. I couldn’t help but think what if… her parents would have had the knowledge I have about TB. What if she would have been treated as soon as they noticed the growth on her spine… What would her life look like if she wasn’t in this wheelchair.
Than I immediately thought of the girl with TB of the Spine in Oro Province! As much as I wish I had never seen someone paralysed from TB, it reinforced the importance of coming. That 10 year old girl in Oro won’t end up in a wheelchair like Dabi because we referred her so that she will have treatment before it’s too late.
There is such a massive need for education on Tuberculosis in PNG; from treatment and cure to spread and prevention. Some people still believe that TB is the result of Black Magic, or even due to war relics buried in the ground and very few people know that TB is actually curable!
Dabi sat in an old wheelchair donated from Port Moresby General Hospital. It was ghetto! Must have been over 20 years old, it was falling apart from everywhere! I get that wheelchairs aren’t made for the rough conditions of Western Province, to be used in the mud and grass continually, but it was barely holding together… Dabi had put sticks in various locations to prevent the loose screws to fall and her wheelchair to crumble! When I saw the sores she had on the sides of her legs from the wheelchair, I knew that something had to be done about this.
I radioed in to our engineers on the ship, and one of our deck hands came to shore and took her wheelchair for a day’s worth of repair. By the end of the day, Dabi was quite anxious to retrieve her most needed wheelchair! The joy and gratitude she expressed at the sight of her revamped wheelchair was worth every sweat drop of Simon’s work. Over the day he had replaced the armrests, changed the seat that was torn off, and a bolted the new one in, inflated the tires, changed bolts, and fixed the feet rests that used to come off with every change of direction in the wind.
That day Dabi was heard, loved, valued, made new friends both in her village & overseas and affected the lives of many on our ship.