Our District Medical Officer and his lovely lady: Ken Brown

A good doctor is one who can diagnose an illness where the person does not drink or smoke, and is not overweight.

In August 1952, Jack Baker and I were on patrol in the Aramia River Delta country in the Gulf of Papua. It was Kamula country.

It is a flooded, featureless swampland and during the wet season blessed with incessant rain. In this case, it had rained for two weeks in a near constant downpour, our tent flies were sodden and leaked continually even in between rain squalls; our clothes dank and mildewed and the current camp site was 12 inches (30 cm) under water. It was Jack Baker’s birthday.

In these extreme conditions I had gone to great lengths to make a special treat for his birthday. I had sacrificed the last couple of pounds (about 1 kg) of our weevily flour and mildewed yeast to make some bread in an improvised oven made from the empty flour drum. The mixture miraculously rose, baked on a mud mound and heated with water soaked wood, which was encouraged with some precious kerosene from our pressure lamp. The result was a disappointingly small square of very good bread encased in an 8-inch oval of hard  charcoal. To cap it all off our tinned foods had lost all their labels in the wet damp conditions and I called a halt after opening six tins of carrots in a fruitless search for some peaches. ack ate the burnt offering and carrots with all the humility that a man might say grace before eating crow.

In my field diary entry on 27 August, a day or so later, I noted that I had not joined in the usual activities that day as I had stomach cramps. I used my Officer-in-Charge prerogative, the weather, and my condition to call a halt to a very fruitless patrol and we headed in somewhat undue haste for the comfort of Daru Island.

During this period of time I must confess to having a phobia about appendicitis although Jack subsequently asserted that my acerbity was due to the burnt bread and surfeit of tinned carrots. It is possible the constant immersion in sago swamp water had curdled my tummy full of carrots and caused pain from non-escaping wind. Be that as it may, Jack would admit the Kamula environment at that particular time was not the best place to dwell on such a phobia.

Our DMO and resident Doctor at Daru at that time was one of the many European medicos recruited by the Director of the PNG Health Department. The first intake, including our doctor, undertook an orientation course at the Australian School of Pacific Administration at Mosman where I was likewise engaged on the No. 9 Short Course with 10 other cadet patrol officers between March and August 1948.

I remember the future Daru DMO to be, wandering around the school grounds when the sun was out in the briefest of Riviera style ‘g’ string swimming costumes. This was at a time when the girls on Sydney beaches were being arrested for wearing modest two piece costumes. The doctor was probably streets ahead of his contemporaries in that sort of freedom. The consensus of the ‘old hand’ conservatives on the course at the time assessed Julian as a bikhet (bighead), despite envy of his physique.

European by birth, our DMO brought to Daru his wife who was a startlingly attractive fellow national, some 20 years his junior. He was about 40. It is doubtful if the DMO’s shares had jumped many points when his impeccable choice of a mate became known on the Island. One thing is sure, he was widely envied. His young wife was in the last few weeks of pregnancy when I first met her. Even so, the descriptions that I had been given that she was a ‘stunner’ seemed very inadequate.

Apart from self-proclaimed medical attributes, the DMO was an accomplished chef, tailor and handyman and—of course—sportsman. He made all the curtains for their house and I believe—from fairly reliable sources—that he regularly designed and made many of the creations that his wife wore. He lost a lot of male points over this rumour. It was difficult, then, to imagine any chore or task that his bride was expected to perform, that he would not be able to say ‘anything you can do I can do better, I can do anything better than you’. I understand, however, that his wife did breast feed the child!

The only breakthrough that I made to better the DMO in any activity in our association was at tennis. A few days after he removed my appendix he suggested a game of tennis would loosen my stomach muscles. He narrowly won and then recommended that I take it easy for some time. Just before I said ‘au revoir’ to Daru to go to Manus I tried to arrange a match to right the wrong. The DMO it seemed had taken an interest in dawn to dusk patrols over on the mainland. However I have jumped ahead in my tale.

It goes without saying that the DMO did not encourage his young bride to appear in public without an approved escort: namely himself. This, I will concede, was not altogether unwise as a mere glance of her, or from her, was enough to leave any young cadet unsettled and homesick for weeks. Enough to say that she attracted admirers as the tuba (alcohol made from coconuts) did the Kiwais.

Invitations to the DMO household were usually restricted to married couples who could play bridge. Later, after I had resisted the temptation to retreat to Port Moresby when the doctor had excitedly exclaimed ‘I vill cut’, and had allowed him to prove his competence with the scalpel, I became one of the few exceptions to this rule.  The elderly District Clerk was the only other one I knew of and I believe this was because he was also a good bridge player. The Hungarian concoctions from the kitchen, compliments of the DMO, were an additional bonus and a tasty change from the massacred tinned fare which Butch, my local haus kuk (domestic) managed to produce.

There were other important players in the Daru saga of 1952. The Senior Medical Assistant, a corpulent, red complexioned, occasionally aggressive man with a heart of gold, was the right hand man for the DMO. He was competent and not greatly overjoyed at having to play second fiddle to a new Australian, qualified doctor or not. His good wife was also a very kindly person who was well and truly rooster pecked. She rarely got a word in edgeways when the Medast was present but when he was not present she assumed his role and made up for it in spades! Never the less they were good people and although the two families, on the surface, appeared as compatible as Lennie Luff (long time resident trader) and officialdom (the District Officer), there were likenesses.

As an aside, the Medast and I were golfers and had the distinction of starting the first golf course on the Island as far as I know. It comprised three fairways between station houses and trees. The idea was to try and get the ball inside a large circle around the flags: take measurements and the one who got the closest took a one putt and the other two.

The Medast was the first one to start me worrying about letting the doctor perform the simple operation. He was perhaps dubious of the doctor’s ability. When I insisted on going ahead he assured me that he would be standing by, just in case. He went to great lengths to ensure the venue for the operation—a small bush material and tar paper hut in the Native Hospital—was spic ‘n’ span. His wife gave the spare room in their house a spring clean, as it was here that her husband was sure that they would have to nurse me through a long and difficult recuperation.

OurRMO

Another important person….no….very important person in all this drama was none other than the wife of our District commissioner. She had made a considerable sacrifice to work alongside the DMO as his Theatre Sister. She did not like our medico very much at this stage, as she considered that he did not give her the respect that she felt was her due as the No. 1’s beloved. Only the weekend before the operation, at the tennis games that the DMO, who had elected himself as Kourt Kapitan, had called out after the men’s doubles: ‘OK, you females can play now.’ To which the No. 1’s wife quickly responded ‘Doctor, I would like you to know most of us are ladies not females’ and stomped off to discuss the incident with the DC.

It seems that the DC was also concerned re the impending operation for he pleaded with his wife to make every endeavour to help me through the operation as I was one of only three patrol officers on his staff with three unmanned outstations. At least I should be kept effective until a replacement could be found!!

Anyhow the big day soon loomed and the Doctor called me in for a pre-operation examination and a needle to give me courage. Almost over-keenly he assured me that I was as fit as a fiddle except for my contaminated appendix and that he proclaimed would soon be expertly excised by himself. I countered by informing him that I was a bleeder. He thanked me for the additional information and jabbed me with another needle exclaiming ‘It’s good to know you have plenty to spare.’

I was given a local anaesthetic and so was able to keep an eye on those about me. The task only occupied about 20 minutes and the three of them worked together as if they had been at it for years. There was not the slightest hint of rancour.

After the removal he dangled a piece of offal about two inches from my eyes while informing me that there was not much wrong with it. He assured me it would not give me any future trouble!! I was happy.

My peace of mind on future patrols was my big win and I was thankful that the doctor’s persistence had negated my phobia. However it was difficult for me to admit later that Jack might have been right about the carrots but I would never give in about the bread!

Fate decreed that not very long after my episode Jack had to be airlifted off the Fly River by a small seaplane when he was flown to Lake Murray. There, a Catalina waited to take him to Port Moresby to have a badly infected appendix removed just in time to prevent peritonitis.

What can I say: first the irrepressible doctor and then my comrade-at-arms. Anything you can do I can do better, I can do anything better than you’.

 

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