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Palmerston, A Doctor’s Perspective

By Dr. Brian McPhillips

The following is taken from extracts of letters home written by ship’s Doctor Brian McPhillips, about his time on Palmerston Atoll, Cook Islands, aboard PICTON CASTLE.

We finally left Rarotonga 4/1 (no fooling) with the massive load of cargo and our passengers. Our passengers were fascinating to watch and talk to. They live a life of patience that is unheard of today, reminding me of the covered wagon folks moving west. They didn’t complain as our departure was delayed by two days, seemed immune to physical discomfort, mostly sitting on the top of our cargo hatch which is basically a hard wood surface and slept there at night (including an 81 year old woman who walked around the rolling deck a little unsteadily, always refusing offers of assistance, and all I could see was a broken hip waiting to happen). They smiled continuously and twice as big when their island came into view. None had been home in over two years.

The Captain again finessed anchoring on a ledge about 100 yards outside a crashing reef in 40 feet of clear blue water off the bow and 1000 feet deep off the stern! I couldn’t even see the passage through the roiling water but about six small boats powered by outboards zoomed out to us to unload cargo and passengers. We had another sweaty session of hoisting the entire cargo load brought from Rarotonga into the boats. Then we were divided into two watches with half allowed to go ashore for a day switching each day with a planned four day stay. As the doctor, I’m to be ashore all four days. The trip in was an e-ticket special. We timed the swells and surged through the reef cut ahead of breaking waves, then slalomed across the lagoon with tiny sticks marking coral heads 1 foot below the surface. After being ferried to the beach, we were all met by the mayor who distributed us among families we would stay with.

I would be staying with Tere Marsters. He is the Cook Islands Administrator for Palmerston, former pastor (everyone still calls him pastor) and is currently living alone in a spectacular 2 bedroom home on stilts facing the south shore with a grove of spaced palms between his deck and the white sand beach, reef roaring continuously in the distance. His wife and 16 year old daughter are in New Zealand for nearly a year. The daughter needed a minor operation. That meant taking a cargo ship to Rarotonga, flying to New Zealand and due to the infrequency of ships coming this way; they enrolled her in school locally for a year. The current population is 81 but only 47 are on the island presently. If a parent needs an operation, the whole family goes and returns anywhere from 2 months later on the next boat to 1 year later based on other circumstances.

We sat on the porch and talked, talked while he prepared and ate sizzling fried parrot fish in onions and sweet chili sauce (fabulous) and then talked some more. He eventually said he chose “the doctor” to house so he could enjoy some intellectual conversation. After a while I got used to the scurrying geckos, cockroaches and streams of tiny ants moving freely on the deck and inside the house which he didn’t seem to notice. His proudest accomplishment in his 10 years as administrator was getting a new school built for the 36 kids (there was no school at all for two straight years under the prior administrator) and keeping it staffed adequately. They use an American home schooling program and are reportedly thriving with this.

The timing of our evening was interesting. With all the talking, supper was at 8:30. We were done at 9:30 at which time he suggested a visiting stroll. We walked down the sandy paths and wherever there was a light on, we walked up to say hello, sit down and chat for a few minutes. I have experienced an almost uncomfortable reverence towards me as the doctor. Everyone else is on a first name basis but when Tere introduces me, someone scurries to bring a chair over, put it behind me and say “Please, doctor, have a seat, can we get you something to eat or drink?” We finally got back home at 11:30 (I had been up since 3:30 am for my morning watch) and we sat down to talk some more until the power went off at midnight (they only run generators 6 am-noon and 6 pm-midnight). At that point he asked if I wanted to go out fishing with some of the guys in the morning so of course I agreed. What time should I get up? 5:30 of course! It was a brief but peaceful sleep outside on the deck.

After fishing I changed my shirt and met the local nurse Martha from Fiji at the health clinic. I saw a total of 8 patients with most just happy to see a doctor and make sure they are okay since I’m the first one on the island in 2 years. They all kissed me on both cheeks at the beginning and end of the visits (you don’t get that on the PC or back home!). The clinic is sparse to put it mildly. They lack strong pain medication of any type, have only two types of antibiotics, no lab or X-ray facilities. The ship has much better medical supplies and I’m going to get a boat ride out today or tomorrow to get some spare medication for several people. I’ll hold another clinic tomorrow with many more expected to come in.

Tonight, we are invited for some guitar and singing by Mama Aka, the 87 year old woman I saw in the clinic today. I’m expecting it to be memorable.

4/6/13

Well, it’s been quite a whirlwind couple of days. After my fairly leisurely clinic session on Thursday, I think the word got out. Once Martha the nurse let the world know I had arrived for the day on Friday, people just started appearing and again were perfectly content to sit outside in the shade for a couple of hours for a chance to see “the doctor”. With the demand, we opened the clinic again on Saturday. Nurse Martha is a Seventh Day Adventist and normally cannot work on Saturdays but it is allowed to if it involves service to others so she came in and we saw 16 more people. By my best guess, we saw about 40 of the 47 currently here with well child visits on all the kids.

This evening was the show with the islanders playing their native drums, guitars and ukuleles with a dance performance by them and separate performances by our men and women who really did a remarkable job learning the moves of Cook Islands dancing in just two practice sessions. I didn’t dance as the clinic made me miss the rehearsals but I was videographer and I’m sure everyone will want copies of what I shot.

I finally went for a walk around the circumference of the island today taking 40 minutes including a 5 minute swim in Duke’s Pool, a crystal clear green/blue water area with perfect white sand which is where the Duke of Edinburgh swam on his visit here. Everyone continues to get a chair for “the doctor” wherever I go, still awkward. Don’t worry, you don’t have to do this for me once I’m home. I’m not expecting it on the ship either.

4/8/13

I’m sitting at the table in the salon after morning watch, just processed the >100 photos and videos I took in Palmerston. The last day was probably the most memorable of the trip so far.

I got up early, packed and walked around the village to see all the things others had been telling me about but I missed spending so much time in the clinic. The “village” basically has a wide main street that is soft sand paralleling the north shore and there is another perpendicular path that dives into the woods leading from north to south.

There is a beautiful small white church but most of the other buildings in the main area are abandoned and damaged from the last hurricane in ’06. Closer to the beach are a number of shacks that people move into almost completely during the warmer season as their sturdy in-land concrete homes get too hot with the lack of breeze. Most of the crew stayed in these shacks. Under one thatched roof there might be 6-8 beds. They say when “yachties” arrive and grab a mooring outside the reef, it turns into a race between different families to see who can get to them first and host them on the island. They never accept any money (there’s no use for it on the island anyway with no stores of any kind) but do appreciate some form of work/service in return (the ship’s crew helped complete a roof on an extension of the school this week in addition to my medical services).

The friendliness factor here is off the charts. Every time you passed one of the “mamas,” the family elders usually over 80, they hugged you and kissed both cheeks and most of the kids ran up to you from a distance and gave you a big hug. They are used to having only a nurse so one of the little boys kept saying to me “Hello nurse man.”

We had 10 am church service, the Thanksgiving service, grateful they made it safely to the end of cyclone season (for which I am pretty grateful as well) with everybody but us dressed head to toe in white. They showed us yet another version of unique fascinating singing. Pastor Tere would announce the song and if he called it “Traditional hymn…” ( as opposed to “Sunday School hymn…”) the mamas just launched into an intro that is hard to describe, a very high pitched, high volume whining shrill like they were pinching their noses that somehow ended up sounding like a bagpipe. The younger women then followed in with the lower registers and the men would start the counterpoint of medium and deeper bass voices. It was all in the Maori language. Tere told me the outer Cook Islanders traditionally have no musical accompaniment. They also reached a volume that made your spine tingle and ears ring with only about 20 adults plus maybe 10 older kids and teens who were singing.

After the service we went for the traditional Thanksgiving “feed,” a community meal with everybody bringing way too much food. Donald, our cook, brought his famous fried chicken (DFC) which was a big hit. We had many kinds of fish but also, Sunday is traditionally meat day so there was plenty of chicken, pork, and pasta with meat sauces. The refrigerated coconuts just kept coming and there were about 15 or more baked breads and pastries. After we all had more than enough, we were urged to have more – even our under 20s reached their limit.

Next came the good-bye scene. Oh my! For about an hour, everybody went around person to person with hugs, kisses and very long drawn out farewells. There were some tears on both sides. Then we invited anyone interested to come out and tour the ship so as we were ferried back out, about 25 of the island kids and adults came on separate boats. There was mutual waving goodbye from the boats to those left standing on the beach that was very emotional. The ship visitors boarded and for another hour, tours went round and round, pictures were taken and the hugs and kisses continued.

The Captain finally said it was time to go. Our boys did an encore performance of their song and dance number on the hatch cover and the islanders sang in harmony a traditional farewell song that brought tears to my eyes. Back in their boats, rather than go ashore, they stood off just a little and watched as we all went up the ratlines, loosed sails and raised the anchor, sailing off without the engine. The Captain ordered “Muster on the Quarterdeck” which usually means a lesson or progress report but this time he just directed us to take a long look and wave goodbye. As their faces became smaller off our stern, the captain encouraged us not to forget them, to write or send emails and not do what most “yachties” do which is have their unique experience that they can talk about for the rest of their lives but forget that these are real, good and generous people who consider communication from former visitors among the highlights of their lives. It is because the PC keeps coming back that we are held in such high esteem.

A final happy vignette: I asked Rose, the school teacher from England how she ever wound up here. It turns out her father was in the British Navy in WWII, developed a love of the sea, sailed in a yacht around the world and was shipwrecked and rescued on Palmerston. She has grown up hearing the stories and now has been able to visit and pay something back to the island she owes her existence to.

That’s it for now. Sorry for being so long winded but I wanted to get this down while it is fresh in my mind as I doubt I’ll ever again have four days impact on me so profoundly.

Brian, Tere and some coconuts

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