Lasting Impressions: Founding Board Member Linda Kwasny Reflects on Loloma Foundation’s Evolution after 10 Years of Medical Missions

It has been a privilege to be the project coordinator for the Loloma Foundation trips for the past decade. Looking back over the myriad of medical/dental missions that we have done, it has been quite an evolutionary ride!

In the early years, we had the luxury of taking small medical teams via water aboard the “Seahawk”, a majestic, wooden Ketch. We would stuff the holds, every nook and spare space with medical supplies and set sail. Over the years, we traveled to majestic, untouched outer islands such as Gau, Yadua, Rabi, Koro, and the northern Yasawa chain, providing support to the villages and regional nursing stations with our medical crew. We would leave behind much appreciated medical supplies and a village full of new friends that were delighted to have seen a doctor who could give temporary relief to an aching back or leg, clean and dress a wound and then give a course of antibiotics. We were there one day and gone the next, offering quick fixes. But, better than not being there!

In addition to serving Fiji, we branched out to Vanuatu, taking larger groups and more medical supplies on bigger boats. We found the villages to be more rural and needier with fewer supplies and in far greater need than we had seen before in Fiji. Basing ourselves at a hospital on Tanna Island, our team worked tirelessly for the short time we were there. The myriad of medications, analgesics and bandages were appreciated but hardly touched their pharmaceutical deficit. In retrospect, we were not adequately prepared for what was really needed at the Lenakel Hospital.

The only boat that serviced the outer islands left the country of Vanuatu, leaving us with no viable means of returning to the hospital or the outer islands with our supplies and medical team. So, we shifted our attention to the Solomon Islands.

In the Solomons, the physician to population ratio is 1:20,000. On the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index (which determines the overall physical and fiscal health of a country), the Solomons are way down at the bottom, just above most African countries. The country is extremely rural and has very little infrastructure, making it challenging to maneuver internally. Most of the country has malaria and tuberculosis is still an issue.

Once again, we assembled a large contingent of doctors, supplies and equipment and loaded all onboard a 100-foot vessel and proceeded to travel from island to island, doing what we could to render support to the existing (or non-existent) medical infrastructure. At each stop, we saw as many patients as possible, doing as much as we could with what we had. At some facilities, it was extremely difficult to maintain order with an oppressive number of people who waited to be seen.

Each return trip, we brought more, did more surgeries and saw more people. The numbers were impressive. On a good day, we could process 300 people. Sure, we hadn’t strayed from our original credo of bringing medical care and supplies to rural pacific islanders, but how effective were our efforts? What kind of lasting imprint were we leaving?

As Loloma continues to evolve, we are working towards maintaining a more effective sustainable presence in rural parts of Fiji. Our goals have shifted to creating a dependable, replenishing stream of medical support at the same facilities.

For years, we have worked in partnership with CWM, the main hospital in the capitol city of Suva, bringing in medical specialists who lecture and mentor Fijian medical students. As part of this process, we will continue to fund Fijian doctors and dentists to participate in the field with our teams.

As we look ahead, we also will be focusing on preventive care at the patient/village level. Village nurses and healthcare workers will receive training on basic health issues and treatment protocols.
We continue to enhance our arsenal of portable dental and medical equipment. We are looking into an effective telecommunication link with our permanent facilities so that we are able to be more effective with aftercare.

Make no mistake; the Fijian medical infrastructure is a great model that supports a decentralized infrastructure. The physicians and nurses are well-trained by the School of Medicine. But, too many of them emigrate for higher pay in Australia or New Zealand, leaving behind a dearth of practitioners. Loloma will continue to find efficient ways to work within the existing medical structure, literally alongside these well-trained people, filling the gap.

It has taken time to find the right formula that fits for Fiji but, after 10 years of missions, we’re getting better!

Looking to the future, we believe we have found two viable, remote bases in Fiji where we can build upon maintaining a stream of physicians and dentists to support a sustainable presence. In January and March of 2012, we sent our medical and dental teams to Taveuni Hospital on the island of Taveuni in the north of Fiji. These included a group of general medicine practitioners, surgeons and dentists and, for the first time, hygienists. Our teams achieved its goal of working within the existing infrastructure and alongside in-country practitioners.

In 2012 at Taveuni:
• Surgical teams performed 63 surgeries
• Optometric teams saw 602 patents and dispensed hundreds of sunglasses and readers
• General medical teams treated 2300 patients at nursing stations and the hospital clinic
• Over $1M worth of medical and dental supplies and equipment were dispensed

Additionally, we returned to our home base of four years duration, Navutu Stars Resort. Annually, the owners have generously turned over the resort to accommodate physicians and dentists who again saw a large amount of the local islanders for 8 days. Our partnership with University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) school of Dentistry enabled us to bring seven dentists who worked tirelessly and treated over 1,000 patients, performing extractions and restorative work. Our physicians travelled to surrounding islands each day to run clinics and saw over 1,100 people.

Our 2013 plan:

We are very excited about the prospect of a very busy and productive, sustainable year!

• The end of January, we will return to Navutu Stars in the northern Yasawas for 10 days with a team of seven dentists, two hygienists, a general medical team and non-medical volunteers to handle screenings. Our general medical team will again service the remote islands each day via boat to administer basic medical care. Our dental team will transform two separate rooms into dental operatories where they will see over 100 patients each day, performing extractions, cleanings, fillings and veneers.

• Mid-March, a surgical and general medical team will travel to the Kirakira Hospital in the Solomon Islands. We will travel and live aboard the Bilikiki, our previous home at sea. We will be bringing over $1 million dollars worth of donated supplies and equipment to supplement our team while they work at the hospital.

• For the entire month of April, four separate medical and dental teams will return to our base in the north of Fiji to the Taveuni Hospital to provide general medical, optical, surgical and dental support for the people of the Northern Laus. We will be bringing in over $1 million dollars worth of purchased and donated medical and dental supplies to support our teams.

With each year, we continue to learn and therefore refine our trips. Successful missions are also defined by the incredible energy of the volunteers we’ve been lucky to have. Together, we can all work to improve the quality of life for these gracious south pacific islanders.

If you’re interested in joining one of our medical/dental missions, contact Linda Kwasny at lkwasny@Lolomafoundation.org

About Author: Bob Sykes

Bob Sykes is a founding board member, Treasurer, and Logistics Coordinator for the Loloma Foundation's medical and educational missions, and he also manages the Foundation’s website and public relations activities.