By Cmdr Heather Sellers
Lead Nurse Planner Kiribati
The plane ride into the Bonriki International Airport was an experience to remember. The island atoll of Tarawa is the shape of a ‘V’ and the water topaz blue, just like you see in the movies. The plane landed and slowed down quickly since the runway is short and ends almost at the waters edge. As the plane taxied to the terminal, there was a large covered waiting area and children hanging on the bars eagerly watching and waving. The heat and humidity are overwhelming and so very different from the cooler, temperate climate that I’m accustomed to in Western Washington State. Also overwhelming and pleasantly so is the friendliness and hospitality of the people. They have been quick to welcome us into their daily lives. Just the other night, we were invited to attend an engagement party. It seemed that the entire village was there, and they probably were. There was much singing, dancing, food and fun; a culture rich with tradition. The medical resources in Kiribati are very different from those in the U.S., New Zealand, and Australia, thus their nursing practice differs as well. Fourteen nurses and medics from the U.S. Army, New Zealand and Australia will work side by side with host nation nurses in their community clinics and hospital. This experience is an exchange of information and an opportunity to learn how healthcare is practiced here in Kiribati.
Travel on Tarawa is very simple since there is only one main road. The road is mostly dirt scattered with potholes with occasional stretches of pavement. There is a large road construction project, so traffic frequently comes to a halt. On the first day, the drive to Kiribati Teachers College (KTC) was slow and took about an hour. When we arrived, the lecture hall doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside, there were beautiful decorations hand-made from some of the local trees and plants. More than 70 teacher trainees and instructors were there. This day was the first presentation of Remote Island Medicine for Teachers (RIM-T) which we created specifically for KTC at their request to give the teachers more training and skills in basic medical care and public health. Some teachers work on more remote outer islands which are less populated, however many of those islands have minimal or no medical support, leaving the teacher as the resident expert on, quite literally, everything. The trainees really enjoyed the interactive sessions like practicing CPR and mosquito hunting around the campus.
We spent the next two days with 63 of the second and third year students from the Kiribati School of Nursing (KSoN). We were so lucky to be able to present lectures in a Maneaba which is a gathering place, like a conference room. However, the Maneaba is an open structure without walls, just big supporting poles and a huge thatch roof and is the center of every village. The students and nursing instructors were such a pleasure to work with and the kindness and hospitality overwhelming. When the students found out it was the birthday of the medic presenting, they immediately started singing the Birthday Song; first in English and again in Kiribati. Then at lunch, they brought a birthday cake made just for her. But it doesn’t end there. After all our lectures were complete, we were asked to stay for a surprise presentation the nursing students had prepared for us. It started with the second year students singing for us. Then, three students in traditional dress performed several dances which were similar to hula. Each of us was given a hand-made necklace of sea shells with a woven heart embroidered with “Kiribati” as a token of thanks and friendship. Next, as part of custom, we were invited by the students to dance, then we had to in turn invite the students to dance. The strength of community here is amazing, they are so giving and had now welcomed us as friends.
This week we will spend with the nursing staff at Tungaru Central Hospital. If it’s anything like the first three days, it will be another amazing experience!