Monday, October 13, 2014

Beqa to Vuda

Beqa to Vuda
It was getting close to the time I was expected to be starting back at the Lautoka Hospital, so on Wednesday morning I pulled up the anchor and left Beqa at about 11am. I was once again trying to time my arrival at a pass, this time Navula Pass into Nadi waters, for daybreak Thursday. I had to traverse the Beqa lagoon first, about 12 miles, and then it was 55  nautical miles across the bottom of Viti Levu to the pass.

The wind was light at first, mainly because we were in the lee of Beqa, so it was an easy sail across the lagoon, though I was on constant anxious lookout for uncharted coral. At about 3.30  it was a huge relief to finally sail out of the lagoon into the pacific ocean, to feel a long low ocean swell rolling underneath and to have a moderate southerly breeze on the beam. It was predicted to strengthen and go to the southeast.  In fact, the sailing in the ocean was fantastic  for the first few hours but then the wind went further round behind and we developed quite a roll, heading west with the swells from the south. But it was still good to be on the ocean again.
Sunrise at Navula Pass

For once my timing was reasonable and as the sky lightened we were indeed approaching Navula pass, and I sailed into Nadi waters as the sun came over the hills. The wind had been easing for several hours and then it died altogether. I decided to have my breakfast and tidy up the boat and have a rest rather than drop the sails and start motoring the 18 remaining miles to Vuda Point. We drifted about for an hour or so and then a light breeze returned, it slowly picked up, by 10 we were sailing nicely for Vuda Point, and shortly after  2pm I was alongside in the marina.

I had a shower and at the marina restaurant, one of my favourite Fijian dishes, raw fish in coconut cream with spring onion and various spices. I checked my email to find out what Customs and Revenues latest offer was : there had been no progress at all. I was amazed, and disappointed.  I phoned a contact in the Health Department who was supposed to be pursuing Customs and Revenue  about it - he was hoping to speak with a senior official in the morning.

So I phoned him again the next afternoon. Overnight I had decided that I had had enough of all this mucking around - if nobody had been able to see the value for Fiji in scrapping their punitive Levy  so I could work for free, I would withdraw the offer. And so it proved to be: the officials were still refusing to make a decision - so I made mine, to save them the bother .

So now I would have to find something else to do to fill in the next six weeks. I could have been elated to have six weeks free to do whatever I liked, but instead I felt disappointment and sadness that I wouldn't be going back to the Hospital . I had enjoyed my time there and had been looking forward to going back.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


My near neighbours off RSYC
I didn't like the anchorage at RSYC because it was like being parked in a noisy junkyard. There were other sunken vessels nearby and not far astern of me a raft of ten aging chinese fishing boats, to and from which speedboats came and went disrupting my peace, and the boats themselves often had noisy engines running.

Ashore, I visited the shops and went to a movie. I spent an entire day trying to find some methylated spirits for my cooker - eventually I got some from a Chemist. It was not available at any hardware store or Petrol station, or at a liquor shop as was suggested by someone in the Hardware store. Everyone seems quite scared of the stuff, mentioning its hard to get because people sniff it.

Finally I lifted the anchor and sailed for a nearby island called "mbenga" - thug its written Beqa. Remarkably the wind was from the northeast, light at first  and slow but it gradually intensified to the predicted 15 - 20 knots, so it was a pleasant 20 mile downwind sail with just the main up.  I entered the reef protected waters around Beqa at about 3pm through Sulfur Pass then motored into a long narrow harbour, running north and south, and anchored in 12m well up past the village of Lalati on the western shore.
Suva to Beqa through Sulfur Pass
The gusty wind seemed to be funnelled into this harbour and buffeted the boat around quite a bit, and then later, just before dark massive storm clouds gathered over head and we had our first squall. Initially there were just brief gusts  of wind that would push  the boat back to strain on the anchor chain, but when the storm  proper arrived the wind accelerated and incredibly heavy rain flattened the sea and bounced off everything. I couldn't see my marks but checking on the GPS I realised we were dragging, with gusts up to 29 knots!  It looked like  we had shifted about 10 or 15 meters  over the first hour of the storm , fortunately parallel to the shoreline rather than closer to it, and we could have safely shifted along another 100 meters, so I let the rest of the chain out and that stopped us from dragging any further. A couple of hours later it was dark but the rain and wind had eased considerably and several hours after that, I woke from sleep to an absolutely windless midnight, the sky had cleared, the water was as calm as glass and the stars were perfectly reflected in it.  Such a dramatic contrast!

In the morning it was overcast but still,  so after my usual breakfast of cereal and coffee I inflated the  dinghy and went ashore to make "sevu sevu" at Lalati. "Sevu sevu" is a more or less formal ritual in which the visitors bring gifts to the traditional owners in return for permission to remain and enjoy their communities lands and waters. Lalati is a tiny village of about 20 worn out houses grouped on a grassy clearing around a large christian church.  I walked through and was directed to where the village Chief was - he was in a meeting at the school with  ten or twelve men sitting on the floor at his house.  A young man came and welcomed me, accepted the Kava that I had brought, and apologised that the chief could not come to greet me. I was free to go.

So I continued further out towards the lagoon to a Resort that had looked deserted when I went past the day before. It was not, but there wasn't a lot happening there. I booked to go on a snorkelling tour with them the next day, had a smoothie at their Bar and read my book, then eventually returned  to the boat.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Capital City - pun intended

Todays Weather Map
The marine weather forecast seemed to remain the same for days on end : a strong  wind warning for northern Vanua Levu , Vatu-i-ra and Kadavu Passages, and for everywhere else southeasterlies, 15 to 20 knots with moderate to rough seas.

At the north westerly corner of Koro, protected somewhat from these SE Trades, it was hard to know exactly what it was like out there, but my choices were limited if I didn’t want to go back the way I came. I had two weeks before I was supposed to be starting back at work in Lautoka and I didn’t want to get trapped somewhere by the weather, or be forced into sailing in risky weather to get back in time. I could go west to Makongai, an island that was once a leper colony, or to Ovalau which is where  Levuka, the former Capital of Fiji is, but from there, if the winds remained as they were, it would be impossible to sail south except rather slowly and uncomfortably by tacking into the “moderate to rough seas” something which I didn’t particularly want to do. So, instead I proceeded from Koro to the south west,  more or less on the same tack that had got me to Koro, close hauled making for Suva. This is a journey of about 80 nautical miles that would have to be an “overnighter” with a plan to arrive at the entrance to Suva harbor, a passage through the reef at daybreak the next morning.

The marker at the southern end of the reef surrounding Wakaya
The wind was a little stronger than forecast, with gusts to 23 knots but the seas weren’t rough. I stayed on Port tack the whole day, except for about half an hour on starboard to clear the reef extending south from Wakaya Island. During the night as we cleared the southernmost part of Viti Levu, Fijis main island , I  turned further westwards, eased the sheets and had a much smoother ride for the final 20 miles or so. It was so nice, in the dark, going a bit faster and rolling over the waves rather than going up and down them, that I  wished we could have just kept going like that, because now I could sleep better and it just all felt so nice.  Instead we had to heave to for an hour and wait for daylight.

I motored in to the area designated for yachts to anchor in front of the Royal Suva Yacht Club, and put the anchor down in 9 meters half way between another yacht and a sunken rusting wreck of a Japanese trawler, almost completely submerged , marked by a stick .

Daylight, and arrival provide a burst of energy that overrides the effects of an almost sleepless night and a long day of sailing – which is just as well because then I have to heave the rolled up dinghy out of the forward hatch, pump it up and launch it and then put the outboard motor on unless the distance to shore is less than 100 yards or so, in which case its simpler to row. Ashore, I paid my membership - $FJD20 – and got a key for the shower. After the shower, and arranging my laundry, I had a fruit smoothie and then a pie, and headed back to the boat to  rest, to tidy up, and to check email.
Anchored off Royal Suva Yacht Club
The correspondence I was most interested in was a trail now reaching nearly 40 emails between myself and various Customs and Taxation department officials : I had been trying to find out from them since August if they were going to make me pay for the privilege of working in their hospital for nothing, as they had the previous time, or would they consider waiving the Duty altogether. Their issue was the regulation that states that any foreigner with a boat in Fiji is only exempt from paying import Duty if he remains a “bona fide” tourist. If the owner becomes an “employee” – and they had decided that working for free at the hospital would make me an “employee”  and I would no longer be a “bona fide” tourist – then the owner becomes liable for the Duty. The Professor and the Departmental head at Lautoka had written  to the department, but still the emails went round and round from one bureaucrat to another and back again, and no decision was forthcoming: till now! Someone decided  finally that YES I would be expected to pay the duty but they would make it at a concessional rate!  I emailed back and asked them to specify  exactly what that would convert to in actual dollar terms, and after another 4 or 5 emails I finally had the answer, that Friday as I arrived in Suva : $FJD 12,450.00.

Yes, twelve thousand, four hundred and fifty dollars!

So I phoned the Professor and apologized to him – I could not work at Lautoka as planned. “Don’t worry” he said, no doubt thinking of all the connections he had with Government  ministers and officials “ We still have a week, leave it with me, I am sure we can sort something out”

Friday, October 3, 2014

Blood Pressure Therapy

Savu Savu From the Air - Sapphire out of view to the left
I visited an Eye Specialist that I knew in Australia and he agreed entirely with the diagnosis and management of Dr Okonkwe in Nigeria. He reinforced the necessity to keep my blood pressure well controlled and stay on low dose aspirin.

The next day I flew to Fiji and he day after that to Sapphire, back in Savu Savu, the real Paradise. I had three weeks to go sailing and get the boat back to Vuda Marina in time to start work again back at the Hospital in Lautoka.

After tidying up and checking all was OK on board, and taking my time about it, and then getting the necessary Coastal Cruising Permit, I sailed out of Savu Savu intending to make my first stop at a place called Fawn Harbour, about 20 miles east along the coast of Vanua Levu.  To do this one first sails south to East Point then turns to Port, heading East to Fawn Harbour. I wanted to go there because I liked the name, it wasn't far, and it looked interesting on the charts, a narrow channel through the coral reef opening up into a flower shaped harbour. My plan was to make a series of day-time sailing trips, destinations and timing depending on weather. Arriving at anchorages well before sunset is mandatory in these coral reef-strewn, and incompletely charted waters.

Turning east around East Point proved impossible - the wind was easterly - from right in front, thought not very strong  - so I continued on Port well out from the coast. After a couple of hours I thought about tacking back - it looked like I might be able to lay Fawn harbour -so I did but after half an hour it was obvious I was not. In fact, on checking I was still 20 miles away from my destination and it was five hours till sunset - clearly  I would not get to Fawn Harbour at a safe hour - even motoring would not get me there in time - and I hate doing that anyway - so I reconsidered my options.
Approaching Koro
Directly in front, only 16 miles away,was the island of  Koro, about a third of the way across from Vanua Levu to Viti Levu, the two big islands that make up Fiji. My aged (1996) Cruising Guide described an anchorage in an isolated bay at the north western corner - and I tacked back onto Port and made for it. The other option would have been to go back to Savu Savu. It was a lovely sail, a warm breeze not more than about 12 knots, a calm sea, and for once I was not close hauled and bashing into it. I had noticed the Log wasn't working - some weed  must have grown around it and prevented the little wheel from turning that gives the readout of how fast we are going - and I had decided not to do anything about it - until now. I went below and unscrewed it from the floor of the boat - water floods in the hole it comes out of but a special plug is provided to stop that while I cleaned the wheel and had it spinning freely again - and then reinserted it and screwed it in tight. I  mopped up the half bucket of water and went out -Great! Now I could see our speed - around 5 knots.  An hour or so later I went below again for snacks - and found half a ton of water flooding the cabin, three inches deep -  somehow I hadn't screwed the log back in properly - I removed it and reinserted it, mopped out the flood and there were no further problems. I am becoming quite good at trying to sink the boat.

Later, my Blood Pressure back to normal, around 5pm, I dropped sail and motored through a tricky pass and around a corner into the bay I was expecting to be deserted - much had changed since 1996 - now there was resort with a long jetty thrusting out into the Bay, a row of thatched Bures along the beach and scattered among the dense tropical vegetation on the steep slopes of the Bay , numerous dwellings that had an "eco-sensitive" look about them, and five courtesy moorings, two of which were occupied. I always like it when I am spared the stress of firstly finding a suitable spot for an anchor, dropping the anchor and checking that it is holding, monitoring to make sure we are not dragging, worrying about being able to get the anchor back up when its time to leave, and the physical effort of hauling it back without a windlass - so it was a nice surprise to be able to idle up to a mooring ball and tie on, just as the sun was about to set.

It had been a great day of sailing.
Sunset at Koro

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Return to Motta

Motta view showing new Church dome
The person who was supposed to come to replace me in  Jahun didn't arrive. I heard there were Visa issues but I also heard of a high drop-out rate for people assigned to west Africa since the ebola outbreak. So on my last night in Jahun I offered to cover from midnight, so that Dr Goya would get at least half a nights sleep - but as it turned out, I wasn't called. In the morning it was Tuesday and I had my last cold shower in the bathroom that usually had several dead cockroaches on the floor, and on one occasion a rat swimming about in the toilet bowl. After breakfast we headed back to Abuja. the long boring ride south to the Capital and to various "de-briefings" at which I mostly praised the workers in Jahun and mostly was a bit critical of some of the managers..

My return flights were through Addis Ababa and so I had requested and been granted permission to break my return in Addis and have a few days to visit my friends in Bahar Dar and Motta. I arrived late on thursday evening and stayed in a quite upmarket Hotel, and I had two beers and chocolate cake for desert. In the morning I flew north to Bahar Dar on the shores of Lake Tana, checked in to the Ethiostar Hotel - about $20 a night - and went for a wander around the nearby shops. The thing that was great to see were women wearing something other than the muslim coverings - it was not just the joy of seeing female curves again but the realisation that here women had so much more freedom, they were free to express themselves in their attire and hair-do's , in their choice of who they walked down the street with and with  make -up. There was just a sense of being out from under the oppressive domination of religion.

The next day I caught the crowded bus to Motta. The fare is 60 birr, about $3.  Its a very slow 120km ride on a horribly rough and muddy unsealed road through  wonderfully scenic terrain, the most noticeable feature being the throngs of people walking along it. Its a rainy season so the fields were all green and luxuriant in their   acreages of Teff and corn, in one place there were sunflowers and everywhere the wonderful little donkeys. Ethiopia felt quite wonderful after Jahun, at least as poverty stricken but there just seemed to be a sense of freedom and almost of joy in the air.

I had warned Shewaye, the schoolgirl who had been my cleaner and helper in Motta, that I would probably be arriving on September 6th - and I did - but that was the western Calendar date and she was expecting me on the 6th according to the ethiopian calendar - which was still several days away! Consequently there was no-one to greet me when I got off the bus - so I walked through the village to her house and surprised everyone when i stepped up to the door of their two room mud walled and bare earth floored apartment!  But they quickly got the Coffee ceremony going and we caught up on all the news and then I checked in to the local Hotel, called the Wubet, the place I visited innumerable times when working in Motta, for beer and lunches of egg sandwiches or a "burger" of a very rudimentary kind. To my surprise, foreigners are charged double for a room, 500 birr for one with a hot shower. It was a reasonably comfortable bed but there were lots of mosquitoes.

The next day I visited the hospital where I had worked for five months in 2011 and 2012. Ethiopian trained doctors had now taken over the role of Obstetricians and so there was no longer a need for "Farenji" doctors. I met Dr Tenaw who I realised was a much more useful person to have there than I ever was because he had been trained in Emergency Surgery. So he could do bowel resections and set fractures and do various other surgical emergency procedures as well as deliver babies by caesarean when needed. The Maternity ward was full and not as clean as we used to keep it or as organised, but it was functioning and according to the stats on the wall, achieving excellent results. 

It rained on and off during the day, so the streets became muddy quagmires. I got my haircut for  about 40 cents and then later in the afternoon I took a walk with Shewaye  to St Georges church, a large church near the centre of town that somehow I had neglected to visit during my time there. Its the typical circular building in the centre of a few acres of ancient trees. At one edge of the enclosure a new building was under construction and inside I noticed a tall object hidden under sheets and cloth. I asked the armed guard if I could go and look at it, and he let me, explaining that underneath the sheets was the sacred object that only select Priests are permitted to view on certain days of the year, an object that is normally concealed in the innermost chamber at the centre of the circular church. It was out here because a new one had recently been installed and this was the old one, now over 300 years old. He removed the coverings and we beheld this amazing ancient relic with its various shelves and partitions and folding doors. Inside it would have sat ancient Bibles and manuscripts. It was a sort of "Indiana Jones" moment for me, to see this once revered and holy of holiest objects.
St Georges Church, Motta

The following morning I got back on the bus and returned to Bahar Dar after tearful good byes from Shewaye and her family, and returned to the Ethiostar. From there I returned to Addis and caught the night flight to Hong Kong and on to Sydney, arriving at 6am, sleep deprived and jet lagged. I had further debriefings in the Sydney MSF Offices and then had a few days to catch up with family, see my Doctor and an Eye specialist , and repack my bags for Fiji, and Sapphire Breeze.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The real Heroes

My time at Jahun has come to an end. It has been an exhausting challenge made somewhat more challenging by the loss of some of the vision of my right eye and with it, binocular vision up close. I cant read with my right eye any more and I had to make a couple of extra grabs at sutures in surgery on occasion. The side effects of the high does steroids were unexpected and weird as well – my balance was disrupted and I felt a kind of dizziness all the time, and my hands developed a tremor. Now I have finished the steroids these side effects are disappearing. I took them in the hope they would help my eye to make at least some sort of recovery but that hasn’t happened.

But it was the work that was the big challenge.  We would almost always express amazement if on the round of patients in the morning we came across a woman who was in labour with nothing at all wrong with her. More usually our patients were complicated, and often the complications were multiple, so for example a woman with twins might also have a history of previous stillbirths, or anaemia, or malaria, or very high blood pressure – or even all of those things together.  I have never seen so much severe anaemia, I have never seen so many people needing blood, I have never seen so many cases of internal bleeding causing fetal death ( abruptions with IUFD , plus or minus DIC) I have never seen teenage women in heart failure or with pulmonary oedema, cerebral malaria, tetanus ...  What is remarkable is that all these very sick women were managed without ANY of the technology and back-up available in the west, things such as laboratory and radiology services, and the advice of other medical specialties such as  cardiology, or  infectious disease specialists, or microbiology.  All these women were managed with just a haemoglobin check and clinical judgments alone. And while almost all of them survived, tragically there were ten maternal deaths in August , and seven occurred in the 18 days that I was working there.  There had been ten in July as well. Most of these women were under 20, and most were of women who were close to death by the time they arrived at the hospital. They could probably all have been saved by earlier arrival at hospital, or better still by proper antenatal care. The maternal mortality rate in Jahun is therefore somewhere around 1200 per 100,000 women – its 8  in Australia. In Ethiopia around 600.  

The babies also suffered – I saw countless stillborn babies – the rate in recent months has been around 15% -  and  many babies that were born alive but would soon die.  “Fetal distress” is a  common indication for doing a caesarean delivery in the west – but here it was always a difficult dilemma – even a healthy baby had a high chance of dying as an infant, and a sick one even more – but if the baby was born by caesarean it would leave the mother with a complication that would affect and amplify her risks in every subsequent pregnancy and could ultimately result in her own death.

The real heroes out here are my colleagues the Nigerian trained doctors who have chosen to come and work here long term, in a town that has power  poles and power lines but no electricity,  shops that have almost nothing worth buying and very little variety when it comes to food, no out of hours entertainment of any kind whatsoever,  an environment that is hot and humid at best and baking dry in the mid 40’s in the hot season, nothing to offer except the experience of working with an International Aid Organisation, and the unique clinical material that floods into the hospital every day.
Amodu, the team leader, an amazing guy
Drs Ebam, Kedala and Abdul
Jimho and son

They work till after 6pm every day and rotate through night shifts, they are the backbone of the service, and are very good at what they do. I am not sure they will have learned anything useful from me – but I certainly learned much from them, albeit about obstetric catastrophes and complications that I may never see at home, but among other things I should be able to tell when the fits someone is having are due to tetanus and not eclampsia.  These guys, with their midwives and a small range of powerful modern drugs, and a blood bank and an operating theatre really do save countless lives every week. 

To those Doctors, I say Thank You for your dedication and all your excellent work, and for welcoming me and making me part of your team for  short while. You are doing great work for the poor women of your nation.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Something is very wrong

This is a clinical sign of vey low calcium levels: leave the Blood Pressure cuff  on for a few minutes and the hand involuntarily adopts this posture
Imagine you were a homicide Detective and you were sent to work in a precinct you had never been to before, far from your usual workplace. On your first day at work an innocent young pregnant woman dies in a grisly fashion just up the road, the sort of fatality you’ve heard about or maybe seen once or twice  over the years before, but now youre confronted with it again, a tragic and disturbing death, that fortunately is of a kind you know to be rare, but something you have been trained to cope with. Imagine your reaction the next morning when a similar thing happens again – another young woman dies tragically and unnecessarily in similar circumstances – and then, in the afternoon, theres a third, though this one survives, and the next day, another. What on earth is going on? you ask yourself and then you realize you are confronting something ghastly, sinister  and inexplicable, a serial killer in the community. A sense of dread and dismay starts to fill your mind as day after day the toll of innocent victims mounts, young women, some surviving but all devastated and shattered by a relentless serial killer, dead babies and dead or damaged mothers. And the killer is Eclampsia, the unique pregnancy related disorder which manifests as convulsions, unconsciousness and a host of other highly dangerous complications : brain injury, kidney failure, liver failure, bleeding disorders, placental bleeding, feral death, even horrible burns from falling into the fire. Its supposed to be rare but its happening all round you.
Now this little metaphor of mine may sound like hyperbole, but let me tell you, it is not. Every western Obstetrician who has ever come to Jahun has been as shocked and perplexed and completely dumbfounded by what they have witnessed here as I have been.  Even the doctors from other parts of Nigeria are baffled. It is unlike anything we have ever had to confront before, the great deluge of this appalling and devastating disease that damages and often kills unborn babies and their mothers, and is happening in ways and to women that all our text books say it shouldn’t be. Something is very wrong out here.
This woman started convulsing at home and fell into the fire. Hers is the second such case in a week, of burns sustained during eclamptic fits 
The books say that in developed countries Eclampsia affects about 1 of every 2000 to 3000 pregnancies, but they also say that in developing countries like Nigeria the incidence is much higher –  Ive seen estimates of its incidence in Nigeria at 1:235 to perhaps as high as 1:70. That would mean for Jahun, in a month, about 12 cases  – but yesterday morning between breakfast and lunch time we admitted three cases, and there were already four in the ward from the previous 48 hours - a staggeringly high occurrence rate of such a devastating disease that is truly rare in the west.

These syringes are full of Magnesium Sulfate to be given to our many eclamptic patients

The question that occurs to all of us is why? What is so different about this place that this disease has become rampant?  The truth is we know so very little about the health of this population that we can only guess but we do know that poverty and anaemia are rife, high blood pressure and kidney diseases seem to be common – and these are all risk factors – and genetics are always part of the picture. But most interesting is a theory proposed by  Ray, one of the MSF Obstetricians who was here earlier in the year : he believes that its to do with calcium. We already know from studies in the west that giving calcium supplements to high risk pregnant women reduces their risk of developing the antecedent to eclampsia, a common condition called PRE–eclampsia.  Ray showed in some preliminary studies that the severest Eclamptics – the ones who died  when he was here – had extremely low calcium levels.
They say it mostly happens to women having their first baby, and to younger women, and that is what we observe in Jahun where many of the women are thought to be much younger than their given age of 17 or 18 – being illiterate they don’t actually know their age but many look very much younger than that, perhaps 14 or 15, and the local midwives will say so. But many of the eclamptic women have had one or more babies before and are closer to 30 and according to the texts they aren’t supposed to be fitting. 

One of the reasons for the low calcium, apart from the poor diet is that Islamic women are all covered up. Their skin doesn’t get exposed to sunlight, something which is necessary for the production of Vitamin D, and its Vitamin D that controls calcium metabolism. But it must be more than that – there are covered women all over the world, and most of them are not suffering like these women are. No doubt there would be research scientists interested in pregnancy diseases who would be eager to come here and investigate this extraordinary phenomenon if they knew about it.

Even without the research it would seem that giving calcium supplements to pregnant women out here might help to stem the flow of tragedy. Alternatively, my suggestion would be to ditch the Hijab, get a new religion, get educated and do a bit of sunbathing! Incredible to think that sunlight on skin could be all that’s needed.