Local physician heading to Papua New Guinea hospital

Scott Swanson

Dr. Nathan Mason was interested in serving a rural population when he arrived at Sweet Home Family Medicine in 2009.

A graduate of Ben Gurion University’s Medical School for International Health, he was also interested in possibly serving as a medical missionary.

If all goes as planned, Mason and his wife Beckey and their five children – Jeremiah, 12, Josiah, 8, Naomi, 5, Caleb 4, and Lydia, 2, will experience both as they move to the highlands of Papua New Guinea, where he plans to serve on the staff of the Kudjip Nazarene Hospital.

They plan to leave Sweet Home in early September, though their actual departure for PNG likely won’t be until November, Beckey Mason said.

It’s going to be a change. They’re moving to a village about an hour’s drive, over dirt roads riddled with potholes, from Mount Hagen, the third-largest city in the country with a population of 46,250. They will live on the hospital compound, growing most of their own food at an altitude of nearly 5,000 feet. They will home-school their children, at least initially, though they’ve already been doing that in Sweet Home.

Getting there has been a process.

“We had some missionaries from Papua New Guinea come to (Sweet Home Church of the Nazarene) and talk about it about six years ago,” Beckey said. “On Facebook I’ve been following a missionary couple and they posted a video talking about the need for doctors over there.”

The hospital, which serves 100,000 people, has six doctors, three of whom are retiring, she said.

“We started praying about going over.”

By comparison, in America, most communities have approximately 250 physicians per 100,000 population. Linn County has about 50 doctors per 100,000 residents.

“Nathan is going to be very busy,” Beckey said.

Lydia, who is adopted, had some medical issues they were dealing with, which “seemed like really bad timing,” Beckey said. But many of those have been resolved, they said.

After months of e-mailing and talking with the hospital staff, including “a lengthy conversation between them and us,” Nathan said, “we decided that was the direction we were going to go in.”

Nathan, from Caldwell, Idaho in the Boise area, and Beckey, raised in Harrisburg, met at Northwest Nazarene University. After they married, they spent four years in Israel while Nathan attended medical school and then lived in Pennsylvania while he did his medical residency.

Both have been overseas before – Beckey was actually born in Turkey, where her father was serving in the U.S. military, and she’s been on missions trips to a variety of spots around the world, such as two former Soviet republics and Mexico. Nathan has spent eight weeks in Kenya, working in a hospital there, and in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in addition to Israel.

In Papua New Guinea, Nathan will replace a doctor who has established a clubfoot clinic, so he will take that on as well as provide care in obstetrics, cancer and heart disease and pneumonia and other maladies that afflict villagers in the area.

The clubfoot problem isn’t unique to Papua New Guinea.

“It’s a problem everywhere,” Nathan said. “Here, you would just go up to OHSU.”

According to the hospital’s webpage at nazpng.org, an estimated 63 of 100,000 children in the country die before the age of 5, compared to seven of 100,000 in the United States. PNG has a population of 7.5 million, divided into tribal groups that speak 826 different languages. The common language is pidgin English.

KNH has 110 beds including adult and pediatric medicine wards, a 26-bed surgical ward, a 12-bed tuberculosis ward, and a 19-bed maternity ward. There is a labor suite with three delivery beds, and the nursery has a capacity up to about 10 babies. Laboratory facilities include hematology, serology, chemistry, as well as microscopy and blood banking.

Each year the facility performs 50,000 outpatient visits, 4,100 inpatient admissions, 850 deliveries (with an 18 percent C-Section rate), and 650 major surgical procedures. KNH also treats sexually transmitted disease, tuberculosis, and leprosy programs prevention and treatment.

The hospital was established in 1967 by the Nazarene church, which also has founded hospitals in India and Swaziland, both of those now operated by local doctors. Although the PNG hospital continues to be staffed by foreign missionary doctors, the nursing staff is entirely made up of indigenous people who were trained on site in a nursing school operated by the hospital, Nathan said.

“The general role of the Nazarene Church’s approach to churches and other ministries is to turn as much over to native control as is feasible.”

That’s been the process at Kudjip, Beckey said.

“When they founded the hospital in ’67, a lot of it was run by people coming from the United States,” she said. “They have purposely made the nursing college. The hospital administrator is now Papua New Guinean. They’re trying to turn it over to the people there.”

“The problem now is that there is not a physician base to even make that feasible,” Nathan added.

Housing for the staff is located on the hospital grounds, which has been donated by local villagers.

The Nazarene hospital has been recognized as one of the best in Papua New Guinea, which is about the combined size of the states of Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Nathan said that the PNG government recently cut medical spending in the nation, which has increased opportunities for service by the hospital.

“Here, we take for granted that when you show up to the ER, that you’ll see a doctor and that you’ll see one in a timely fashion,” Nathan said. “In most of the hospitals in Papua New Guinea, when you show up you may be admitted for seven days before you see a doctor. A lot of the doctors in the secular hospitals moonlight. They’ll go out and do private clinics because that’s how they make their money.

“One of the big distinctions of our hospital is that when you go, if you need to see a doctor, you’ll see a doctor. When you go there, you’re getting the best care possible.”

The hospital lacks the resources that are typical in American medical facilities. It doesn’t have a CT scanner or a catharization lab – “things that we just take for granted,” he said. “The hospital gives the best care they can by understanding medicine and physiology.”

The nurses can handle a lot of what doctors would normally handle, he said.

“I don’t know if they’re officially called nurse practitioners, but they function like a nurse practitioner. Because when they go out to these remote clinics, often they’re the only one at these places that are treating and diagnosing. They can call and get help from the parent hospital, but you can’t see the patient who’s days away by hike or an hour or more plane ride.”

The hospital meets spiritual as well as medical needs, they said. Nurses are also trained in ministry and go into the villages throughout the mountainous country surrounding Kudjip, planting a number of churches in surrounding communities.

A lot of the churches in the country were actually started through medical mission efforts, Nathan said.

Chaplains visit patients daily and doctors will often talk with patients about spiritual concerns.

About 15 percent of patients are there because of violent trauma, Nathan said.

“Domestic violence is huge, as is car accidents. So, a lot of these people, if there wasn’t a hospital with physicians there, they would die.”

Beckey recalled a conversation with a couple who has served in rural Papua New Guinea.

“Rural is a day’s hike, or multiple days hikes, or you fly in. When they got to the village, 70 percent of the babies were dying. They were able to teach them just some basic medical care and how to take care of the babies. Seventy percent started surviving.”

“The whole system is integrated to try to change the healthcare of that region and the country, to improve it.”