“New Guinea natives walked barefoot two days to line up four abreast and wait their turn for medical attention at our headquarters in Goroka,” Doc Skotte said as he flipped through pictures on his laptop and told how he spent three weeks in New Guinea.
Sunriver’s doctor, also known as U.S. Air Force Col. Daniel M. Skotte, was one of two American flight surgeons on a team of 40 military volunteers sponsored by the Nevada Air National Guard for project Pacific Air Command Angel in June. Others included dentists, optometrists; Australian, Filipino, Indonesian, and Canadian doctors; physical therapists, med techs, and construction engineers. They assembled in Hawaii where they boarded a C-130 to Kwajalein Atoll, Guam, and New Guinea, landing at Lea 14 hours later.
“Lea is the site of Amelia Earhart’s final departure,” Skotte said.
The group rode in a convoy of Land Rovers six and a half hours non-stop to Goroka, a town of about 19,000 in the Eastern Highlands at 4,200 feet—the same altitude as Sunriver.
“The non-stop ride was deliberate to avoid traveling at night. On the equator daylight is 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. After dark, natives throw rocks at windshields of vehicles on the road and rob them of their cargo when they stop. Truckers of 18-wheelers installed screen over their windshields but natives threw eggs and continued the holdups,” Skotte said.
In Goroka, they headquartered at one of two hotels and were warned to eat all their meals there, drink only bottled water, and never walk outside alone. As one of the most primitive places on earth, many of the natives never leave the jungle, known for its headhunters and cannibalism, although there is no record of cannibalism during the last three decades. When young Michael Rockefeller disappeared in the New Guinea jungle in the 1970s, some feared he met his demise in a tribal soup pot.
“Everyone we met was friendly. Most had never seen a doctor or a dentist. Because children are not taught to brush their teeth, toothaches and abscesses are common. One adult had 14 teeth pulled. I pulled one patient’s tooth under the guidance of a dentist. We dispensed 2,000 toothbrushes and as many sunglasses. Dentures and eyeglasses are unknown. We saw many sun damaged eyes. Natives thought the dark glasses made them look ‘cool’,” Skotte said.
Other common ailments are infected gashes from bush knife (machete) fights over property boundaries; large tumors and goiters; and sexually transmitted diseases. Polygamy is practiced in New Guinea, and although the government program promotes A, B, C—Abstain, Be faithful, Condoms, 20 percent of the patients seen had STDs.
“While I saw wife No. 1,” Skotte said, “the doctor next to me saw wife No. 2, and another doctor saw wife No. 3. The husband did not come, so we sent medicine for him home with his wives. Odds are 90 percent that church members do not have STDs.
“Catholic, Lutheran, Seventh-Day Adventist, and Protestant churches are popular. I attended a Foursquare service and estimated about 400 in attendance. Of course, I understood little of the pidgin English. There are about 850 languages in New Guinea, plus dialects. Each village speaks its own language. English is taught starting in the fourth grade in schools.
“We saw hundreds of patients a day. One woman crawled a mile on her hands and knees because a childhood disease had left her crippled. Her knees bore calluses like those on bare feet, but she wanted us to fix her sore wrist (carpal tunnel). Every day she crawled on her hands and knees 40 minutes up a hill to tend her garden and 40 minutes down again. Another doctor and I located a wheelchair at the pharmacy and bought it for her. Her eyes lit up and she beamed because now she would be able to attend church.”
To show her gratitude, she made a bilum for Doc Skotte.
“Everyone over the age of 12, men and women, carry a bilum (shoulder bag as we would call it), longer straps for men, who average five feet tall, and shorter straps for women, seldom over four feet tall.
“I received eight bilums, each a different color combination and design: one from a translator she made entirely from bird feathers, and another with my name woven on it from Sarah, a school teacher. Sarah spent two days making the black, orange, and red bilum in gratitude for putting her in touch with our IT people who taught her how to use her cell phone.”
One might cringe at being admitted to the local hospital after seeing Skotte’s pictures. Men and women roomed together in a building about the size of a military barrack.
Hanging sheets between the beds offered privacy but more heat so sheets were seldom used. Peeling paint and dirty hand smudges on the walls looked unsanitary. Instruments were sterilized outside in pressure cookers.
“Every day on the equator, it rained or looked like rain,” he continued. “In the Southern Hemisphere, water swirls down the drain in the opposite direction that it does in the Northern Hemisphere. Satellites on the equator face straight up.
“Most of us went jogging in a group every morning for exercise. One villager grabbed the iPhone strapped to a female med tech’s arm. Most onlookers ran but a few chased and caught the thief and began beating him so severely that we had to rescue the thief. Stealing is the major crime.
Everyone tends a garden, including eight firemen who each own one-eighth of the garden next to the firehouse. Natives rent space under the covered pavilion, spread tarps on the ground, and sell their pesticide-free fruits and vegetables at the daily open-air market. Produce is picked ripe and sold to eat the same day.
“Fresh pineapple, sweet bananas, avocados the size of a small melon melted in my mouth, and sugarfruit. Cut open, the inside of sugarfruit looks like snot with black seeds, but once you get past the appearance, it tastes sweet. Everyone eats plenty of fruits and vegetables, but their diets are low in protein,” Skotte said.
A vendor presented Skotte with a hand-crafted spear, but it was too long to take home. “I gave him my suitcase dimensions, and he redesigned the spear to fold and fit inside.
“Coffee is a cash crop. I became friendly with Otu, who gathered coffee beans and invited me into his house (hut) to see his machine and how he hand-cranked the cherry off the bean. I felt honored that I was the only one in our group invited into a hut. Otu explained how he wove the grass and bamboo roof in a cone shape over a 15-foot diameter room with a firepit in the center of the dirt floor. He replaces his roof every 10 years.
“Most of the public buildings and government built schools are open sided because of the heat and covered with corrugated metal or grass and bamboo. Our engineers built outhouses for the schools.”
After they had seen all the patients who walked to town, the medical team was driven on an hour’s ride to remote jungle villages with no electricity, no running water, no phones, and no newspapers or magazines. Meals were trucked in for the medical team.
“We were the first white men, and uniforms, they had ever seen. If any had seen Japanese soldiers during World War II, they were not alive to tell because their life expectancy is about 57 years,” Skotte said.
“Mudmen are found only in Goroka Province, New Guinea, and nowhere else in the world. They cover their entire head with a handmade, white mud mask and wear a short, sparse grass skirt that barely covers their frontal area and behind over a white mud-covered bare body.”
They look eerie and ghostly in Skotte’s pictures.
“I hit the tree next to it five feet away,” he laughed.
The mudmen performed a mock battle dance at the closing ceremony for the volunteer group. Also in attendance were the first woman governor of the province and the U.S. Ambassador to New Guinea.
Would Doc Skotte return to New Guinea?
“I would,” he said. “The people are very humble and full of gratitude. About 50 families live nearby in the New Tribes Missionary Village with two full-time American doctors. I’d spell them for their vacations.”