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A matter of the heart

Dr Elizabeth Alok (left) in the operating theatre
Dr Elizabeth Alok (left) in the operating theatre

| Business Advantage PNG

PORT MORESBY – “I grew up in a household in which I was told girls can do anything that boys can do and if you have the ambition, you can achieve your goals,” says Dr Elizabeth Alok, Papua New Guinea’s first female trainee cardio-thoracic surgeon.

Alok will be one of only two practising CT cardio-thoracic in PNG when she completes her training this year.

She is an advocate for a specialist cardio-thoracic institute in Port Moresby. The idea for a specialist unit was first promoted by chief cardiac surgeon Dr Noah Tapaua in 2016, who wrote that the caseload for heart and lung surgery was increasing in PNG in line with population growth.

Eighty percent of patients, he said, were children with congenital heart disease, but he warned that it didn’t reflect the true rate because of the prevalence of rheumatic fever and other heart diseases associated with the changing lifestyle of the population.

It’s a view shared by Alok, who chose to go into cardio-thoracic work “because there is a need”.

“Operating in the chest was one of those areas I feared, when starting up as a general surgeon. But facing one’s fears head on is the best way to overcome any obstacle.”

Until recently, cardio-thoracic surgery in PNG had been carried out in Goroka and Port Moresby by a few visiting Australian surgeons.

But Open Heart International in collaboration with Operation Open Heart PNG – which sponsored these visits – has moved to training the local PNG team rather than solely relying on overseas doctors.

“I decided at medical school that I wanted to be a surgeon, so I chose my residency in the Highlands,” Alok says.

“I knew that it was more likely that I would see trauma cases up there and the overall exposure would be good for me. I spent one year at Mount Hagen, where my dad is from, then a year in Goroka and finally a few months in Kudjip with Dr James Radcliffe.

“And it was what I expected. You are required to do more ‘hands on’ in so many areas and you see so many different cases when you’re working in the outer provinces.

“Personally, I was happy with that choice before coming back to Port Moresby.”

There was no immediate vacancy in surgery, so Alok spent six months in obstetrics and gynaecology, followed by a year in the field of accident and emergency, before finally getting her break into general surgery in 2009 at Alotau General Hospital.

She recalls with fondness one of the deciding moments in her career when the late Dr Lister Lunn, one of PNG’s first cardio-thoracic surgeons, allowed her to assist in a closed-heart operation and the awe and fulfilment she felt when assisting during that case.

“Operating in the chest was one of those areas I feared, when starting up as a general surgeon. But facing one’s fears head on is the best way to overcome any obstacle,” she says.

In recognition of her skill and work ethic, Alok was asked to joined the Open Heart International team in Tonga last year, which was her second Open Heart International visit to the country, as the support surgeon for over 20 operations.

She took the lead in a number of cases alongside Sydney specialists Dr Ian Nicholson and Dr Bruce French.

“I loved it. Two weeks of hard work. I had blisters during my first week, but you just have to look past that and keep working. Most people wouldn’t like the hours and the stress, but I love it.”

Excerpt from ‘Matters of the heart’, first published in the March-April 2020 edition of ‘Paradise’, the in-flight magazine of Air Niugini


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