An experience to remember. A tribute to health workers

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Mata'afa Keni Lesa

Let’s see. When it comes to health care in Samoa, we all have our stories to tell, especially experiences at the national hospital at Moto’otua. Some stories are great, some are good, there is the bad and of course the very ugly.

We’ve heard it all before. What with the unwelcoming attitude of some staff members, poor service, facilities and those infamous security guards who seem to love the sound of their voices at the oddest of hours when patients are trying to sleep. Hardly anything new!

Let me tell you a little story. It happens to all of us. Now and then the engine needs to be overhauled and when the time comes there is simply nothing you can do about it. It doesn’t matter if you’re strong, busy, fit or whatever, there will always be that time when one must be at the hospital – not as a visitor but as a patient.

My turn – for the first time ever – was two weeks ago. I’ll spare you the details about what landed me up there but I spent four days in the facility being cared for by some of the most loving souls who exist in Samoa. 

Over the years, I’ve spent countless hours visiting patients, families and friends but to be hospitlised for the first time can be quite intimidating, especially when you sit on my chair where you’ve read all the nasty stories about the service.

Most of the time though, the staff are bagged and they cop a lot of unnecessary flak for issues with the service – even when what’s at the heart of the matter is totally beyond their control. Let me explain.

The first point of contention is getting through the crowd at the Emergency Room. The wait can take hours. As a patient, you don’t want to hear the fancy Samoan oratory by the security guards when you’re there. You only want to see a doctor and if you are in extreme pain, it can be excruciatingly frustrating. This is what seems to tick off a lot of people. They have a point and I found that the moment I arrived. 

But the wait is not because they want to keep you waiting. There is a reason for this. You see, the limited number of doctors and nurses available to tend to patients is a big part of the problem, I found. When you have two or three doctors attending to hundreds of different patients, surely we can all appreciate the challenge. At worst, there might only be one doctor for all those patients. And he/she might be on her second day of round the clock work after having being on call the night before. They can barely keep their concentration.

The chronic shortage of doctors and to an extent nurses is nothing new for Samoa. It has been a well-documented problem for years and it remains so although it is heartening to see that there are really innovative ways being worked out by O.U.M, N.U.S and their partners to nurture our own and upskill local health workers. 

It’s also good to remember that Samoa is not the only country struggling with the retention of doctors and nurses. Although their situation is not as bad, you hear similar stories in Fiji, New Zealand and many other bigger countries.

Coming back to Samoa, one of the biggest changes at the hospital is the improvement in the facility – as in the building. Thanks to China and the proactive-ness of the government in terms of development, the people of Samoa are blessed with such a facility. It’s not the flashest place in the world but if you’ve been there before and you know what the facilities were like, you can only be grateful.

Suffice to say, it’s a building you want to be in if you are sick (not that anybody would want to be sick). Compared to the hot, stuffy, run down and widely exposed facility of yesteryears where mice, stray cats and dogs were a common menace, the hospital we have now is a class above. 

It’s clean, air-conditioned and user friendly. 

What’s more, it must be said that the staff really try their best in their very own unique way. There will the exceptionally rude ones (especially depending on their mood) but not everyone up there can be painted with the same paintbrush. There are many wonderful and warm souls, which can sometimes be hard to find in a very depressing environment where they deal with life and death each day.

Speaking of rudeness, this brings me to an issue I’ve always heard about the hospital, especially in relation to the security guards. I don’t need to tell you the story and in some cases, they are very true. A little bit of common sense, courtesy and a willingness to give and take would solve all our problems. 

But to be fair to the security officers, they too have a job to do. And some times they are hated for doing just that. 

Take for example the monitoring of people smuggling in food and violating visiting hours. It is hospital policy that outside food for patients are prohibited. For good reason. For a lot of the patients, it is the very food their families are smuggling in for them that sent them to the hospital in the first place. 

What’s the use of doctors and nurses trying to cure a patient when families and friends defy medical instructions and feed him deep fried chicken and everything else he is not supposed to eat behind their back? Why waste their time? 

Folks, that is not love. That is stupidity.

Let’s be reminded here and now that health care is about team and collective work. It’s about the doctors and nurses doing their work while we play our part. Since they are the experts with qualified opinions, we should listen when they tell us what we can and cannot eat. And when we do, we will find that the security officials will no longer confront our relatives and friends at the door. 

The best thing to do, if you feel you must show your love for the patient or the carers at the hospital, is give them money so the carers can walk across the road and buy themselves some food. I say this because at the hospital, there is plenty of quality and healthy food for patients. To give you an idea, they serve breakfast, midmorning tea, lunch, midafternoon tea, dinner and then an evening snack. The portions are just what the doctor ordered. And they are delicious. Where else in the world can you get this service for the prices we are charging in Samoa?

With reference to the visiting hours, let me tell you this. If you are a person who is always on the go like me, the best thing I found at the hospital is that it gave me an opportunity to sleep and rest. It was priceless. And it was there I finally understood why the security guards insist on visiting hours. Keep in mind that doctors and nurses too need time for their work - like inspection visits at the lot.

 If doctors thought that loud noises were the best thing for patients, they would have sent us to a nightclub or the Fugalei market. But patients need peace and quiet at all times. They are suffering; they don’t want to be bothered and they certainly can do without what old folks would often refer to as your “ata tauvalaau” (annoying and unnecessary loud laugh) at the corridor. They just want to rest. 

I was fortunate to share an isolation room at Acute Seven with another patient. It had its own bathroom, shower and with a stunning view of the Apia Township. All of this in air-conditioned comfort, the treatment, medication and the food for $30 a day. I’m not kidding.

And there was certain glow on the faces of the staff in this particular ward. They were helpful, considerate and they genuinely wanted their patients to get well. This can be a difficult task especially in Samoa where we Samoans think we are experts in everything. 

But the health workers try, they really do and we can only commend them given the circumstances. I can go on and on but I’ll stop here. 

The point I really want to make is that it’s easy to take pot shots and pour cold water on the efforts being made to improve things when we don’t want to understand the reality. 

But knowledge and experience is power. 

My first hospital experience as a patient is something I will not forget in a hurry. You go in there and you trust God that he will work through the doctors and nurses who are part of a system designed to provide quality health care for everyone. Some patients are admitted and don’t walk out. If you are a doctor or a nurse, that takes a toll on you. It must hurt.

I saw the challenges; struggles and I saw the small victories they celebrate quietly. I also witnessed how the system needs to improve to make things better.

There is no doubt that we need more doctors, we need more nurses. We need this government to stop wasting taxpayers monies on useless white elephants and corruption while the poor health workers are copping the blame for being overworked and underpaid. 

This is pure madness. It must stop. 

If the government is serious about placing the nation’s health first, it must put its money where its mouth is. Recover the millions lost through collusion, abuse and corruption and inject it back into the health system. And the government must play a more active role on the prevention of the illnesses that are killing our people. Leaders too should lead by example and look the part.

Having said all that, this is not by any means to suggest that the hospital experience at Moto’otua will be the same for everyone. Not at all. Your experience might be different. What’s comforting to know is that our health service is a work in progress and from what I saw up there; it’s making positive strides. 

There will be the odd cases here and there where there will be problems and criticisms that will eventually end up on these news pages. Such is life. But appreciation and giving praises where it is due can go a long way. 

And take it from someone whose first time experience at a hospital included a surgery and rehabilitation, I am extremely grateful. Forever grateful!

On that note, I want to extend a heartfelt thank you to Dr. Ponifasio, Dr. Aleki Fuimaono, Dr. Raymond Laulu, Dr. Faitasi Gae’e and all the doctors who helped - including the team who operated on me. 

I want to mention Leo’o Dr. John Adams whose professionalism as a private doctor saw the immediate referral of my case to the right hands, just at the right time.  I also commend the professionalism of the staff at the X-Ray division and CT Scan Department. Thank you to Nurse Ta’apena Solofuti Alo and her team of smiling nurses at Acute 7. You make all the difference. 

Last but not the least, to all the health workers in Samoa, keep up the good work. 

In an increasingly sick country, you will continue to be called upon.  

If you are underpaid and overworked, God Almighty sees you. He has blessed and ordained you for such a time as this and greener pastures are on the way. Believe it. 

Have a peaceful Sunday Samoa, God bless! 

© Samoa Observer 2016

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