St John Ambulance in PNG

Highlands, coast and cities: how Australian volunteers are supporting St John Ambulance in Papua New Guinea

Aerial view of Morobe Province. Photo credit Harjono Djoyobisono
Aerial view of Morobe Province. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono
Mary Winmay vegetable seller at Kokopo Market East New Britain. Photo Harjono Djoyobisono
Mary Winmay, vegetable seller at Kokopo Market, East New Britain, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono

While it has operated for more than 90 years, St John Ambulance in Papua New Guinea is currently growing rapidly. With support from Australian volunteers, within the next ten years St John Ambulance will become the national provider of ambulance services in one of the world’s most challenging geographies.

Papua New Guinea is one of the world’s toughest environments. Communities are dispersed through some of the most challenging landscapes, from dense jungle in the mountainous highlands to rugged coastland spread across more than 600 islands. Roads are extremely limited, which can make travelling to an emergency in an ambulance impossible.

The team at St John Ambulance Papua New Guinea are trying to achieve something incredible. They’re building a national ambulance service in one of the world’s toughest environments, where planes, boats and troop carriers are regularly called upon to reach those in need of help.

That challenge, for Australian volunteer Pat Duggan, is part of the appeal.

One of the best bits of my role was working with the whole team out on the road; heading off in a troopy or a plane to help someone who wouldn’t have been able to get treatment until recently, said Pat.

For 90 years St John Ambulance has provided Papua New Guinea’s only coordinated and free ambulance service. While it has been around a long time, it’s currently undergoing a major growth spurt. Over the next year the service will expand to regional cities Lae and Kokopo, and within a decade, will become a completely national service, thanks to an agreement with the government of Papua New Guinea.

As the service has expanded, so has demand – there’s been a 180% increase in requests for service in the last year. The increase in requests is being helped, in part, by their secret weapon. A reality TV show.

Green Angels follows paramedics and staff from St John Ambulance as they provide life-saving emergency medical support around the capital Port Moresby and Papua New Guinea’s mountainous Central Region.

Green Angels is the first ever reality show in Papua New Guinea, and it was an absolute hit. It’s played a big part in getting the community aware of St John Ambulance, the role of emergency clinicians on the road, and the challenges we deal with, said Pat.

Pat arrived in Papua New Guinea in 2018, and is one of eight Australians who have volunteered as paramedics, paramedic educators and clinical support officers in the last 18 months.

Australian volunteers helped coordinate incident management during the 2018 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting, developed clinical practice guidelines and have trained and supported local St John Ambulance staff. One developed a first-aid program for schools that has since gone national.

At that APEC meeting the Japanese government donated 21 ambulances, which the team were able to retrofit for local use.

The team has seen incredible changes in 12 months – new ambulances, an international-standard call centre, better kits for crews, said Pat.

The team are now operating at a really high standard…they’re able to respond better, and more efficiently, in an environment where small delays can be the difference between life and death.

Like Pat, Sarah Bornstein has seen the transformation in the ambulance service in a short amount of time.

Sarah took her background in emergency nursing to Papua New Guinea, where she volunteered through the Australian Volunteers Program for three months as a clinical support officer with St John Ambulance. After working in central Australia she was looking for the next challenge.

Working in emergency services, there’s this sense of adventure that we all share, said Sarah.

Volunteering in Papua New Guinea felt like a natural progression for me.

Living and working in Papua New Guinea comes with its challenges – it’s easy to forget that somewhere this uniquely different to Australia is only an hour’s flight from Cairns.

The landscape is the most noticeable thing for me. The mountains you drive over, and the roads…I’ve done some medical evacuations that have been an intense experience, and on the way you’re passing this incredible jungle landscape.

Safety and security of volunteers in Papua New Guinea is a priority for the Australian Volunteers Program, as it is in all of the countries the program operates in. Volunteers take certain precautions by and have access to 24-hour security support as needed.

For Sarah, the safety precautions were something that was straightforward to adapt to.

Volunteering with the Australian Volunteers Program has meant a safety net…the support provided is incredible, said Sarah.

The program also supports volunteers with airfares, medical and travel insurance, living allowances, training, and a dedicated in-country support team. This support allows volunteers to get on with the job of delivering sustainable, lasting change.

We could come here, work on the road and impact a few lives, and then be gone back to Australia – and the ambulance service would still be the same, said Sarah. 

Instead we’re able to educate, train, pass on skills. When we’re gone there’ll be so much improvement, and it’s such a nice feeling knowing that the skills we pass on to the staff here can make such a tangible, lasting change.

For Sarah and Pat it’s the personal and professional development, memories and friendships (both with their colleagues and other volunteers) that will outlast their time in Papua New Guinea. Both agreed that it’s the people they’ve met and worked alongside that have made the experience.

The rewards are amazing, said Sarah.

Get outside your comfort zone and challenge yourself.

*This story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 edition of Response, the magazine of Paramedics Australasia.

Sarah Bornstein PNG St John Ambulance 2
Australian volunteer Sarah Bornstein volunteers as an Ambulance Clinical Support Officer with St John Ambulance, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea In this photo she is with Ruth Daniel, St John Ambulance dispatcher.
Sarah Bornstein PNG St John Ambulance 1
Australian volunteer Sarah Bornstein volunteers as an Ambulance Clinical Support Officer with St John Ambulance, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, with her colleague Jermaine Sarufa.