Promised potential
Sonnet 14: Getting bruised

Kath Donovan: health worker who served PNG for many years

Kath DonovanRUTH MYORS | Sydney Morning Herald

KATH DONOVAN, who has died aged 83, arrived in Balimo in the Western Province of Papua New Guinea in June 1966 to do medical work among the Gogodala tribespeople.

She was appointed to a government-run health centre that consisted of a few thatched huts staffed by a couple of male medical orderlies.

The orderlies had minimal training and a penchant for going home at 4pm no matter what the condition of any patient. This was unacceptable to Donovan, who believed that every patient should receive the best treatment possible.

There were huge changes when Asia Pacific Mission (now Pioneers of Australia), the organisation Donovan belonged to, took over the hospital and she was appointed medical superintendent.

By the time she returned to Australia in 1983, she left behind a well-appointed 100-bed hospital staffed around the clock by two doctors and a team of qualified nurses. A nurse training school had been established, a feeding program was up and running and supervised aid posts covered 20,000 people over more than 20 villages.

Kathleen Owen Donovan was born on 20 January 1931, in the Sydney suburb of Waverley. Despite her family's medical work, she grew up with a fear of illness and death, which she blamed on the fact that her oldest sister had died three months after she was born from leukaemia. Dorothy's inability to deal with this also left a dark cloud over Kath's childhood.

When Kath's biology teacher said to her ''be sure to study something that interests you'', she chose agricultural science at the University of Sydney. In a class that was predominantly male, Donovan excelled. She graduated top of the year and was awarded the University Gold Medal. She then received the Walter and Eliza Hall Scholarship to do a PhD on the serology of milk at Edinburgh University.

During her early days in Edinburgh, homesickness motivated Donovan to seek out a church. She was not in the habit of regular Christian worship but she was intrigued by the sermon based on Jesus' words ''seek and ye shall find''. This, as a scientist, gained her immediate interest.

She sought out the preacher, who suggested she read and re-read the New Testament in a modern translation. The outcome was a deep Christian commitment and the eventual decision to study medicine after completing her Edinburgh studies.

Back in Australia, to the amazement of all close to her, Donovan returned to the University of Sydney, trained in medicine and prepared to work in Papua New Guinea. Once there, she also developed a keen interest in malaria and was the first person to report chloroquine-resistant strains of the disease in her area.

Over the years, Donovan wrote scientific articles on malaria, pigbel (a parasitic form of necrotising enteritis) and other tropical diseases. During the independence celebrations for Papua New Guinea, in 1975, she was awarded Papua New Guinea's Independence Medal for services to the country.

On returning to Australia permanently in 1983, Donovan began research into stress and coping and wrote the book Growing Through Stress (1991).

She then provided medical information to societies caring for people who worked in developing countries and, together with her friend and co-worker Ruth Myors, established the Christian Synergy Centre, which provided psychological and medical services to missionaries and other Christian workers. In 2001, she co-wrote a book, Taking the Mystery out of Malaria, for non-medical people.

In 2008, Kath Donovan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. She never married and is survived by a niece and two nephews and their families as well as Ruth and many other friends.


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Jenny Crawford

Kath Donovan looked after me in Balimo quite a few times.

As an asthmatic I had a few scary times and was twice flown out to Moresby.

Her team also looked after our dog following an attack with a machete.

We could never have served in such an outpost without the services of a professional like Dr Donovan. Rest easy Kath, and thank you 🙏

Mikaela Seymour

As a young Australian doctor currently working in Balimo, this is an inspirational story to read of those that have come before.

I hope to find out more about Dr Donovan's legacy. Will look out for her books. Thank you for publishing this piece.

Mrs A Thompson

I have been told that Kath Donovan was the doctor who delivered my husband in her hut in Balimo in 1967. His mother was a missionary at the time. A true blessing she was there with the complications that arose.

Miila Gena

Tribute to Kath Donovan, who studied sago haemolytic disease in Western Province in 1975 following Tukutautaufa's first reports in Maprik East Sepik Province 1974.

Health service needs to go to the rural remote communities and not wait for rural communities to come to hospitals in Papua New Guinea because there is such a geographical barrier.

Thanks to doctors like Kath Donovan reaching out to the remote communities.

Phil Fitzpatrick

I knew Kath when I was an ADO at Balimo.

She was what a real missionary should be.

A good life well lived.

Mrs Barbara Short

I just hope the hospital in Balimo is still up and running. I heard that Australian Doctors International were helping out in the Western Province but when O'Neill took over the Sustainability Fund they lost their income and had to curtail their work.

There was an excellent Q and A from Sydney University on the ABC Channel 2 last night, where many people fired questions at the French lady, Christine Lagarde, who now heads the IMF. She emphasised that for the world to progress money must be spent on education and health in the developing countries. I'm sure PNG Attitude readers would heartily agree with her.

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