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Thursday 24 July 2014

Port Vila TO Australia


Our flight down from Pentecost to Vila on Wednesday night was delayed, so didn’t get to our rooms in the Melanesian Hotel until about 10 PM. The hot showers, comfortable beds and great buffet breakfast were worth every cent. Thanks Rob!

After breakfast we met for a debriefing with Richard Tatwin our boss at PCV Health.

Richard was delighted at what we had achieved and helped us to understand the impact of our efforts. The team of twelve with seven Aussies, guided and assisted by three Ni Van health workers and the two Fruit of the Pacific dental health and hygine educators, proved to be a great combination. The team was small enough to be sufficiently portable yet had the capability to bring significant change.

Over the years I have led a few teams, in work and other areas of life, but this one was outstanding on several fronts.

For starters … everyone got on so well, was unselfish, uncomplaining and cared for each other. The challenges of the environment were viewed through a “task focussed” outlook, so that nothing was too difficult.

Bob Natuman and Dick Naket, our PCV dental and eye workers, were great.

Tamie and Chris our dentists and Pat our optometrist were full of praise for Bob and Dick’s skill and knowledge.  In many ways Bob was my right hand man and the bridge over the culture and language differences. Bob is a leader and I look forward to the day when he fulfils his dream of becoming a fully qualified dentist.

We had a great farewell lunch at a waterfront cafe and then all too soon the six Melbournians were off to the airport and home. I flew out the next day. By then Mary was back at work in Santo, Marcel working on Maleluka, John was still at sea on the barge heading for Vila, Bob back at work in the PCV clinic and Dick was preparing for the next outreach to Maewo Island in August.

So in closing, to my fellow team members – Andrew, Chris, Pat, Tamie, Holly, Mee San, Bob, Dick, Mary, Marcel and John – a very big and heartfelt thank you !!

Thank you for great attitudes, hard work, and simply being the delightful and fun people that you are.

Lets do it again sometime.


Cam Heathwood


(Team Leader)







Above:  MeeSan ready to RockOn … Andrew …  maybe … not so …


Above:  Team Pentecost relaxing between clinics



Above:  Bob at work









7 8 911










Pack up time

Wednesday 23 July 2014

FROM Apatuntora Village Pentecost Island  TO  Port Vila


Another pack-up and travel day but this time by truck and Air Vanuatu from Apatuntora up the road to Sara airfield, then onto Santo for five hours and finally back to Vila – the end of our mission.

Knowing we would soon be back in the middle of winter, Andrew and I squeezed in one last snorkel before piling all our bags and eleven of us into a ute for the short drive to Sara airfield. John stayed behind to take all the bulky gear back to Vila on the barge, definitely the short straw!

Once again our pilot was Will Dyer the ice pilot, who gave us a very pleasant trip to Santo. Our plan was to pack swimmers for a swim at Santo. On his advice we took a cab to Lope Lope resort which is quite close to the airport. The idea of swimming again went west as we relaxed on the verandah over looking the lagoon had lunch and free WiFi.

Alas the WiFi brought the real world with it’s demanding emails filling in boxes and brought to mind the beauty of being without a data connection.

At the Melanesian Hotel we said a sad farewell to Bob and Dick our two wonderful Ni Van health workers, language and culture translators, and plain good blokes. These two were great workers and both knowledgeable in their fields

With electricity,  hot showers, shops and traffic, Vila is a world away from Pentecost Island. Truly a remote place definately out of the rat race. Tomorrow we have a bit of a sleep-in before a team debrief. Everyone except me is flying to Melbourne in the afternoon and I will be off first thing Friday.

I hope you found this blog useful and of interest.

At times I really did not feel like writing,  but I am glad I did, as in doing so, I have had to ponder this experience more deeply and I am the richer for it.


Above: A 5 hour stop-over at Lope Lope was a lovely little break and a real treat!





Above: Our colourful Air Vanuatu Twin Otter


Cheers for now,





A big day at the office

Tuesday 22 July

Apatuntora Pentecost Island


Yesterday we worked flat chat all day and saw 101 patients – 63 dental patients had 108 teeth removed, the optical team saw 36 and Dr Andrew only had 2 medical patients but gave dozens of local anaesthetics.

We thought we were running at max power to do that but today we really pushed the envelope.

At the end of the day we had seen 169 patients. Dental maxed out at 85, optical at 76 with 3 medical. Once again we were exhausted but also elated at what we had achieved. A big push for our last days work for this mission to Pentecost Island.

Our last evening meal was shared with the health workers from the clinic. Chief Edward, Amos and the chairman of the health committee made speeches thanking us for our work, telling us we would not be forgotten and imploring us to return next year. We were touched.

In our professional lives we all help people every day, but we rarely get more than a cursory “thanks”. So thank you people of Pangi, Melsisi and Apatuntora villages … you have blessed our hearts.

Here are the numbers for the whole trip.

Total Patients 809

Dental 335

Optical 335

Medical 139

Teeth extracted 352

Dental implements sterilised 2680 approx based on 8 per patient

Dental hygiene and health education team presented to 2022 people.

Not a bad effort!



Above:  Last evening meal  (Ed: I suspect dentist Tami took the photo)




Above:  Pat looks into another eye




Of course this trip is not about numbers. There are about 17,000 people living on Pentecost Island and we have only scratched the surface.  But like the boy throwing starfish back into the sea it sure made a difference to each one we were able to help.


Down to business

Monday 21 July


Apatuntora Village Pentecost Island


Amos wasn’t joking.

He certainly publicised our visit well. Dental work at full speed both dentists from 8AM to after 6PM working with headlamps in the dark as there is no elecrticity here.

We saw a total of 63 dental patients, 11 optical and 2 medical. We set another world record for extractions at 108 and went home ate dinner, had a game of cards and flopped into bed!

At the moment there is no moon and nights have been overcast so it is dark with a capital D. On Sunday night I went for a walk up the road into Apatuntora looking for the fabled Digicel reception spot. On my return I walked straight past the clinic unable to see anything my torch beam did not illuminate.

It is quite clear to us that Apatuntora is poorer than both Pangi and Melsisi. I spoke to Chief Edward, a lovely man with a great heart for his people. I asked him what was the greatest problem for his people.

He answered by saying “We need the word of God and Vatu (money). We dont have Vatu or ways of making it. It costs too much to take our produce to market and there are no jobs here for anyone except a handful of teachers and clinic workers.”

Certainly when you go to a shop and there is no coffee or tea on the shelves, things are crook!



Above:   Tami teaching on the job



Above: The patients just kept coming.


Must be time to sleep








Sunday rest ?

Sunday 20 July


Apatuntora Pentecost Island


An easy morning setting up the clinic and then a lovely long sn orkel over a varied and interesting reef from another small coral beach which was over hung by trees growing on the steep slope above.

The clinic opened at one pm and from then on until dark it was all hands on deck.

In Melsisi we had been told there will not be much dental work at Apatuntora as there was a dentist. We found out that the word “was” was the only part of that statement that held truth. The “dentist” was a dental worker and had departed at least two years ago. So the dental team of six was flat out. Dr Andrew (not a dentist) was given a quick lesson on administering local anesthetic and became the seventh team member.

When the dentists are going hard the rest of the dental team is going hard too. Implements were raced down to the sterilizer, washed (ie removing the blood and bits of teeth), rinsed, sterilized in the pressure cooker, dried and sent back for another use.

At the end or the day we were tired but satisfied.

Amos Tabi the clinic director advised we could expect more of the same tomorrow.




Above:  The waiting room



Above: The view from George’s house


Till tomorrow





In transit …

Saturday 19 July 2014


Melsisi to Apatuntora Pentecost Island


A beautiful morning, calm, warm and humid. We had an early breakfast, finished packing and then had a lovely, though way too short, swim and snorkel …  then an early lunch, packed the utes and headed for Apatuntora.

The driver who drove us from Pangi had said this trip would take about five hours, another driver said 4 hours and yet another said that the last time he drove to Apatuntora it took 6 hours. All said the road was rough and bumby and impassable in the wet season. So we really were not sure what to expect.

The road climbs very steeply out of Melsisi. The first 1KM is concrete the remaining 45 KM red clay or gravel. After the aches we all felt from the 2 hour trip from Pangi we were gritting our teeth and thinking this was going to be a long drive. But it actually turned out to be really interesting, more comfortable and only three and a half hours. The fact that we averaged 13 KMH indicates just how rough the road was but because we had packed smarter and had two standing up behind the cab, all nine of us travelling Vanuatu style arrived in pretty good shape. Holly even managed a sleep, but then Holly can sleep anywhere!

This road is the only road and runs mostly along the centre ridge of the island with one dogleg down to the west coast and then climbs back up along the middle again. We drove through many small villages. Sometimes it felt like we were driving through thier living room. Nearly all the little children would come running yelling exuberantly and waving as we passed through making me wonder how many trucks actually use this track. It really is a track and at times we had bushes brushing down both sides of the ute



Above:  John and Marcel (from Fruit of The Pacific) giving the oral health and hygine talk to waiting patients



Above:  Loaded up and on the road to to Apatuntora



Like most villages in Vanuatu, subsistance farming is the way of life. Occasionally we would see a copra drying oven but up on the high plateau ( about 300M above sea level) there are few coconut trees, so we did not see any obvious money making ventures. But the people are creative and ingenious and since nearly everyone has a mobile phone there must be some way of making cash.

It was easy to see why the travel times the different drivers quoted varied so much as a recent rain shower would make the clay track as slippery as ice.

That reminds me I haven’t mentioned the great weather we have had since we arrived in Vanuatu. Only one sprinkle of rain. Lots of rain would make the team work a lot more difficult.

Apatuntora (our destination)  is nestled in a steep little valley that terminates in rough coral beach about 120M wide. At first glance it seems to be a town of about 100 people but actually serves a nearby community of about 300 and another few hundred up above in the bush. Located in such a sheltered valley Apatontora doesn’t get much wind so is much more humid. Most of the coast line of the north half of Pentecost Island is cliffs with an occasional small coral rock beach, whereas the south has a flat coastal strip with long coral beaches between headlands.

In Port Vila and everywhere we have been on Pentecost there have been absolutely no seabirds and not many birds in general except chooks. It is odd to be in what looks like a wilderness which should be teeming with birds of all varieties but to see and hear very few. Some have said that on all inhabited islands rats have eaten the eggs out of the nests and wiped out entire populations. It is a bit melancholy. We had a rat eat our coffee during the night! Hope he couldn’t sleep.


Till next time







Brief message received …

Tuesday 22 July



News just to hand (text message received)


Found Marrapea* got a photo!
Now in Apatuntora interesting 3.5 hour drive very rough in parts a little rain would stop travel. Toyota Landcruiser utes are awesome!
Very  poor phone signal here.

Hi again finally found signal will see if I can send a blog


Ed:  No message received yet.  Will post when received



*  Four years ago, (2010) Dr Graeme Duke diagnosed Parkinsons Disease in a lady who had been unwell for months – lying on a mattress  Here are two photos from 2010 showing the making of a walking frame and the lady herself up and about.  The joyful news is that 4 years later Cam and the team were able to find Marrapea alive and well (we look forward to seeing the current photo when it comes through)

Doctor with hacksaw – always a worry…



Marrapea is off and running, well, maybe not running as such