University of Calgary




Postcard from Papua New Guinea

As a student with past community development experience abroad, Thomas Stark felt his U of C medical practicum abroad allowed him the opportunity to work one on one with patients in a unique setting. “Through this experience, I now know why I have chosen to pursue medicine,” says Thomas Stark. “The ability to make a direct impact on an ailing patient is truly a rewarding experience.”

stark in operating roomWhat motivated you to do your Medical Elective Placement abroad?

Deciding to pursue a medical elective placement in Papua New Guinea (PNG) was not a difficult choice. A fellow medical student who had done her placement there previously, described the placement as a real hands-on experience in which students are encouraged to be active in patient care. That, along with the promise of warm weather, beautiful beaches and world class diving, drew me to this unique island nation.

The Faculty of Medicine requires us (medical students) to take a four-week medical elective rotation, encouraging us to seek out placements abroad, especially in the developing world. I decided to do two weeks in anesthesia and two weeks in general internal medicine and obstetric to get an idea of how medicine is practiced in a resource poor setting. Not only have I learned great technical skills, but now I can appreciate how a health care system operates in a country lacking the resources we take for granted in Canada.

clinicWhy study in Papua New Guinea?

Papua New Guinea is very diverse with many cultures, ethnicities and languages spoken (over 800!). Its people are a friendly and very welcoming lot. While walking down the streets, a stranger will not pass by without giving you a smile and greeting you with a ‘Happy Noon’. PNG has received some much undeserved media attention as being a dangerous country, when in fact much of the country is safe for travellers. In fact, with its white sand beaches, a diverse cultural environment and some of the best diving in the world, Papua New Guinea is truly a gem waiting to be discovered.

Did you go on any excursions?

Through Modilon Hospital, I was lucky enough to participate in several rural pediatric clinics. Several of us would pile into a truck and drive to a remote village, offering medicines and advice to the inhabitants. It was a very rewarding experience as many of the mothers did not have the necessary funds to seek transport to the nearest health centre. After our work was complete, we were invited by the local ‘bigman’ or leader, given fresh coconuts and exchanged stories under the jungle canopy.

babyTell us about a cross-cultural interaction you had.

Birthing is quite different in PNG compared to Canada. In most cases it is done in the village, often resulting in complications. When birthing mothers do come to the hospital, the father rarely attends, preferring to stay far away. In fact, midwives laughed when I told them that many Canadian men attend the delivery. Interestingly, by law, a woman must get consent from her husband in order to have a tubal ligation performed in the case of family planning. The midwives joked that perhaps fathers would not insist on such large families if they could see how much pain the process of delivering a baby can really be.

Did you try any local delights?

In order to be initiated as a true Papua New Guinean, it was necessary to try the beetle-nut. A soft white nut inside of a fleshy green shell, it is chewed along with a mustard vine and some lime made from burning sea shells. When chewed together, the beetle-nut becomes a vibrant red. As you are forced to spit copious amounts of saliva, a mild stimulatory effect is experienced. A habit, beginning in childhood to relieve the pain of growing teeth and shared by over 90 percent of the population makes its users’ red stained teeth a ubiquitous sight throughout PNG.

bilumWhat has this experience brought to your life?

Not only providing me with valuable skills, my placement in Papua New Guinea has demonstrated to me a unique way of practicing medicine in a resource poor environment. Before arriving, I had no idea of the amount of medical procedures I would perform during my stay. Being a first-year student, I thought of the elective as more of an observership. The healthcare system in PNG does not allow for this and students are expected to learn their procedures early as they are needed in order to accommodate an environment of scarce medical resources. Despite being ranked consistently low by the United Nations in terms of development, and even without the sophisticated laboratories and equipment of rich nations, the health care workers of PNG are able to provide good medical care and treatment to a huge segment of the population. In fact, we in Canada could learn much as we both share a common challenge of providing healthcare to our remote populations within a universal healthcare system with nominal fees.

For more information on study abroad programs please visit the Centre for International Students and Study Abroad website (