Driving to save a life: Koibuga's unsung hero

07/10/2012 01:05

William Tonal, the Koibuga health center officer in charge, who drives to save lives.  




By Hilda Wayne

THE ambulance siren sends out its usual signals yet again and for this trip a fragile old man from the nearby Paralga tribe needs to get help immediately.

The driver is used to being woken up at odd hours – being on call day and night for anyone who needs help. This time it is close to mid-morning on a clear sky, thank goodness, because if it rained it would place an extra burden of safety for both the sick and the driver himself.

William Tonal, officer in charge at Koibuga’s Catholic health centre not only knows his job but loves what he does, having done this for over 14 years at the health centre which serves close to 10,000 people. The people he serves have fondly bestowed upon him the title of honorary ‘doctor’ and he is known throughout the community as “Dr Willie”.

Koibuga is almost an hour’s drive from Mt Hagen city and is in the lower Nebilyer district of Papua New Guinea’s Western Highlands province.

On this trip, there has been a referral and he needs to take his patient all the way to Kudjip Nazarene Hospital outside Mt Hagen which would take several more hours. His passion is evident when he drives past the busy Kai Wei betelnut market, where man and beast go about doing their business with no regard for vehicles passing through the main highway. Even the ambulance siren is not a cause for concern. The urgency in Mr Tonal’s voice is clear as he manoeuvres his way around to get past the crowd whose sole priced commodity of trade is betelnut.

“I have seen many people die and these deaths could have been prevented if we had better facilities. My people have suffered over many years and lots of mothers have died due to birth complications. Now I am happy,” said Mr Tonal.

And he has every reason to be happy because the old aid post whose dilapidated services he was accustomed had been upgraded to health centre, with the help of the Messeior Foundation in Germany and Papua New Guinea Sustainable Development Program Ltd (PNGSDP). Last year his old Suzuki – which he often used to rush sick villagers to Mt Hagen – was replaced with a new ambulance which has not rested since making Koibuga its base. The ambulance was donated by Digicel Foundation.

Mr Tonal said previously they would lose two to three mothers every year due to birth complications. Now with proper facilities mothers are assisted and when they cannot be assisted at Koibuga, the ambulance takes them to where help can be sought, usually in Mt Hagen general hospital. There are now a total of three staff members working with Mr Tonal at the health centre.

The local community’s enthusiasm was outstanding when they banded together to build a staff house and clinic two years ago. Another staff house was built later with funding coming from local MP Benjamin Poponawa.

The Koibuga community in Nebilyer district in Papua New Guinea's Western Highlands province.

The building of staff houses including the health centre was spearheaded by local building tradesman Nelson Tu. Village chief and elder John Nengal said it was not easy trying to get people to contribute towards building the clinic and staff house in their initial stages of development. He said most people made a living through subsistence farming and it was hard.

Mr Nengal said the population was divided into family groups with each having their own leaders. These became the local health board formed in 2000. The community health board worked with their members to encourage support and what started out as a K5.00 contribution per head led to extraordinary accomplishments, when development partners became interested in their initiative.

The community health board is chaired by John Pundia, who said he was proud of what communities throughout the area have been doing and said if people showed initiative development is possible. He said the leadership of people involved and the support by local communities and key development partners made it possible to do extraordinary things, such as what Koibuga had achieved.

From a single room aid post nearly three years ago, Koibuga health centre now has a voluntary counselling and testing room, antenatal clinic, general ward, labour ward, a paediatric ward, an outpatient and a male ward among other developments.

Mr Tonal said since these developments more lives have been saved and this has made his work together with his staff and the support of the community more rewarding. There have been more safe deliveries of babies at the Koibuga health centre and many referrals since 2009.

“When a mother is saved, that is more rewarding. I get phone calls early hours of the morning because one life needs to be saved and I have to get up and get going. If I don’t a life might be lost,” he said.

Mr Pundia, Mr Nengal and Mr Tonal all share the same sentiments that it was exhausting at times but worth it. They said the next project for the community would be the building of a mini hydro to power the health centre, the Catholic church and the Numul top-up primary school. And with what they have achieved so far anything is possible.

  • The story was previously published by Papua New Guinea newspaper The National