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My experiences as a medical student in PNG

Papa and me deep in thoughtPOYAP ROONEY

IN 1995, TOWARDS THE END OF GRADE 12 at Port Moresby International High School, when the time came for us to choose what we wanted to do, I was undecided between engineering and medicine.

I remember asking my then girlfriend weather she’d prefer me coming home with greasy, oil stained hands or sterile hands smelling of some medication or another. Neither sounded particularly appealing to her.

In the end I figured I’d take the Science Foundation year at UPNG Waigani, which is both the pre-admission year and the first year of the Bachelor in Medicine and Surgery (MBBS) program. I would learn more science and at the end of the year could still go either way.

As my freshmen-year went by, I found my interest leaning towards medicine. I was intrigued by the science: human physiology, biochemistry and especially anatomy. I pictured myself as a surgeon as did many of my student peers.

I also revelled in the competition. Only the best students would be chosen to do medicine, and I wanted to prove (to who exactly I don’t know) that I was worthy to be counted amongst them.

I wasn’t a particularly brilliant student and at times was probably a bit lazy, but on the occasions that I sat down to understand the material, I thoroughly enjoyed and was very much intrigued by what I was learning.

I continued to play with the awesome Harlequins Rugby Union Team and got into the usual weekend drink-ups and shenanigans as happens with all rugby clubs. However, towards the end of the year, I had to take the rugby posters off the walls and replace them with charts of the Creb’s cycle, periodic tables and the likes.

Towards the end of 1996 I had well and truly decided and was determined to get into medicine. I saw the challenge and the discipline that was required and which would give my life structure, focus and a pathway I felt I wanted to travel.

Another reason behind my interest in science and medicine were that some of the strongest memories I had of my father, who had been murdered six years previously in 1990, were our many conversations about science.

As I read and learned more about things of science, in a way I felt I was continuing these conversations with him.

Early in 1997, while on holidays in Manus, I was filled with excitement and anticipation when my name appeared in the list of students chosen from the 1996 Science foundation cohort to go on to study medicine.

I had a sense of purpose, ambition and energy. I was ready to take on the challenges that the next four years of life as a medical student were going offer me at the Medical Faculty and a life as a doctor, though at that stage I didn’t really know exactly what it was going to be like.

1997, MBBS 2 was tough year. All day, every day of the week, we had lectures, laboratory and cadaver dissection sessions. The workload was heavy and it was constant. If one was to miss two or more days it meant a lot of catching up afterwards.

The program was old school classical type teaching, where the lecturer walks in delivers an hour lecture and entertains questions before we were left to read, revise and take it all in.

It had its advantages in that the topics we had to cover were delineated precisely and we could tick each them off as we did them.

However, to me the one lecture after the other format was at times unbearable and I found myself sleeping through some of the lectures (“some” may be a slight understatement).

The whole curriculum was changed in 2000, when the more tolerable and humane problem based learning (PBL) program was introduced. I later had the privilege to be a tutor under the PBL program and am of the opinion that the PBL is a much more superior and appropriate method for teaching medicine in PNG.

Third year started to get more interesting as we were introduced to pathology and, towards the end of third year, clinical medicine and could now start to apply our new found knowledge of basic medical science and pathology and public health to patient care.

We were slowly starting to feel like doctors.

Fourth year heralded for the first time in my life a real sense of purpose and responsibility. I was excited but at the same time somewhat disorientated by this feeling of being needed; of having a place and a role to play in society.

My identity was being shaped by this process of becoming a doctor. But I resisted the tag “Dr” defining who I was, I did want to be a good doctor, but more importantly, I wanted to be a good person who was a doctor.

That year we spent most of our time at Port Moresby General Hospital attached to one of the clinical teams and generally getting a good feel of the practical aspects of being a doctor. We basically did most of what the Resident Medical Officers’ did: admitting patients, doing certain procedures, first with supervision then at times independently.

It was certainly a great time of exciting learning, interspersed with parties and adventures that make for a good laugh every now and again when one indulges the past.

One particular story that makes me laugh is about John (not his real name) at a social night. John had fancied an exchange student from Norway (or somewhere like that), who had been at Med Fac for a few weeks.

John was quite the gentlemen during the night’s infancy but as the night grew older; passions arose as did the blood alcohol levels, the gates of inhibition were burst open to an outpouring of passionate expressions.

John, after exhausting all the impressive dance moves he could think of, fell to the floor of the humid dinner hall come dance floor in front of the pretty Norwegian exchange student and started doing rigorous push-ups, in his bid to impress her… what a crack up!, John had many similar adventures.

Poyap and mates on the Kokoda TrackA day after our fourth year final examination, I accompanied three of my friends on a 10 day bush walk along the Kokoda track. We decided to do this as relief from the end of year exam stress and avoid the ongoing stress of waiting for our results.

It took us 10 days from Ower’s Corner to Kokoda station. We took our time, and at several villages along the way we spent whole days just mingling with the locals and getting to know them.

It’s been said many times before about how friendly these people are and I can well and truly vouch for that. They accommodated and fed us and when we moved on they offered corn and fruits for our journey.

The late Seni Oroni (may he rest in peace) came to show us the beginning of the track at Ower’s Corner, but we twisted his arm and he ended up coming along with us with his famous pair of green trousers. Having him was reassuring as he, being a Koari man, knew the area and people along the track.

During our fifth year we continued to work in the hospital doing our rotations with the major clinical fields and feeling more and more like doctors with the ability to work independently.

It wasn’t unusual for many of us not only to assist but to actually do relatively complicated procedures and operations in our 4th and 5th years, things students in Australia or other developed countries would not dream of doing; like breech deliveries, caesarean sections, etc.

One of the most memorable times during my Med Fac years was our rural experience which I have written about previously.

I’ll end here with an extract from my diary during the fourth year:

You can’t let the tag “Doctor” be you, YOU have to be you and you have to be the doctors. I believe this applies to any profession.

People aren’t interested in what you know, it’s what you can do with that knowledge that matters. But first one must acquire that knowledge, that tool. You must be fair on society (patients) and yourself.

You’ll be getting paid for your unique skills, make sure you know them well. It’s a long way to the top and, between there and where you are, is oblivion.


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Oroni Naiori

Enjoyed reading this piece. Late Seni Oroni, i miss you dad.

Nathas Wangs Juwaka

Very touching. In wherever/whatever areas of profession we are engaged in, we get to serve with our heart. God sees and will reward accordingly according to His own timing.

Beatrice Yokondo

Awesome story. I enjoyed reading it.

I like the extract from the diary. It has made to think more about what I can do and offer. I should work for the sake of being paid but also to help and develop our country.

Small and humble beginings will lead to greater things later in life.

Roberta Eraio (nee Ali)

That was a great read. It is an honor to know people like yourself of inspiration. You do make PNGean's proud. You should feel proud of yourself too.

Poyap J Rooney

Jay Amgen - No not the end, more to come later.

One of the things I remember our lecturers used to say was how shy, almost painfully timid, PNG Med Students were. They were right mostly...

I also remember having a conversation with a fellow PNG doctor who managed with much persistence to gain a fellowship with the Australian College of Physicians.

He also stated that difficulties in expressing himself (in English) had been a big hurdle for him to overcome.

Alex Harris

Very engaging Poyap. You have a book in you.

Francis Hualupmomi

Very interesting. I would like to hear more from other westerners who have lived and studied in PNG universities. I think you should also publish this work with PNG Magazines.

Jay Amgen

Hey..... Is that the end of the story???

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