Medicine on YWAM Medical Ships – Dr Thomas Chengxuan Lu

Medical outreach to PNG run from a converted cruise ship


from Luke’s Journal 2021 | Fire in the Belly 2021 | Vol.26 No.1

L-R back row: Soufian (Dentist, Belgium), Thomas Lu, Hannah (PGY2, Germany), Shun (ED Attending, Singapore),
Maggie and Kapi (Med II, PNG). Front row: Susana (Dentist, Australia), Rochelle and Ebony (Med II, Australia).

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” John 10:10, NIV

This was declared proudly to all patients waiting in the sweltering sun at the beginning of our primary care clinic. Here we were, Christians and non-Christians intermingled on the shores of our close neighbour, Papua New Guinea (PNG), providing care in the name of Jesus. 

Background of YWAM

Youth With A Mission (YWAM) Medical Ships – Australia and PNG (YWAM – MS) are a Christian organisation with headquarters in Townsville. Using a converted cruise ship, YWAM-MS runs approximately ten to twelve outreaches to the rural and remote regions of PNG each year. The ship houses up to 130 temporary and longer-term volunteers from across the world who come from a diverse range of backgrounds and faith systems. 84% of the PNG population live in these areas and for them, such outreaches may be their only access to primary care. 

My journey

I stumbled upon YWAM-MS during the end of internship. As a medical student,
I had always wrestled with what it meant to live faithfully in the ever-consuming world of medicine. My conclusion was to be a dependent and loving worker, who displayed a life of integrity and grace, with conversations seasoned with salt and truth. This rendered meaning and provided dignity to my vocation as a servant of Christ in the medical field. 

However, reality felt incongruous to this with 6pm admissions, the gradual accumulation of overtime and the frequent godless banter which seemed fundamental to modern-day medical teams. This inspired me to explore medical missions overseas. Having seen the YWAM stall at a previous CMDFA meeting, I signed up for an outreach trip during annual leave.

Outreach medicine

There were many challenges in practising medicine in PNG. Each day we would commute from the ship to our target location. Some of these commutes were long and bumpy, featuring a mix of worn rugged jeeps, wooden stalls on the back of old pick-up trucks, and even a medium-sized dinghy to navigate volatile waves. All the equipment, medicines and vaccinations were carried in multiple heavy, large backpacks. 

“In 2019, over 30,000 vaccinations were administered, and 40,000 patients reviewed in the primary care outreach clinics.”

The focus of each outreach is the provision of primary care, in alignment with the national priorities of the country. Interventions are cost-effective with the goal of providing the greatest quality of adjusted life years (QALY). There is a strong focus on providing childhood immunisations, and on family planning. 

Tropical diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and yaws are prevalent in the country,1 and occasionally, patients become significantly unwell. Allied health professionals are highly valued as there are many musculoskeletal presentations, secondary to people having hard lives working the fields. The dental clinic can see well over forty patients a day. In 2019, over 30,000 vaccinations were administered, and 40,000 patients reviewed in the primary care outreach clinics.2

Medicine in PNG was a cultural shock. Apart from the significant language barriers in history and examination, more specialised investigations and sub-specialist support were unavailable. This made presentations beyond the most basic of issues difficult to tackle. Although more specialised services are available in Port Moresby, there are significant barriers to access due to the rural and remote locations that the medical outreach services. 

Holistic development and partnership

The medical work is accompanied by a strong emphasis on partnership with local health providers. Papua New Guinean healthcare workers regularly participate in the outreach trips. Their input on outreach priorities, based on provincial and district health authority, is highly valued. In fact, part of YWAM-MS’s funding is locally derived from PNG corporates.2 With each outreach, there is holistic engagement with the local community. There is a commitment to education, for example, programs which aim to reduce gender violence. Infrastructure is also supported when possible, such as water pumps and water tanks repairs. All of this is built upon a solid relationship with the local community. 

Faith and remote medicine

Although challenging at times, PNG offers the opportunity to practice medicine steeped in faith. By tradition, YWAM clinics always begin with a reminder that Christ has provided life to the full. The overwhelming Christian heritage in PNG makes spiritual acts such as prayer prevalent in consultations. For many patients with more complex and chronic ailments, unable to access treatment due to resource limitations, a reliance on God is the only solution. These settings have only reminded me of the natural decay of life, and to put our hope ultimately in the eternal life provided by Christ. 

“For many patients with more complex and chronic ailments, unable to access treatment due to resource limitations, a reliance on God is the only solution.

Fellowship and evangelism

Within the ship environment, there exists an amalgam of cultures and people. Christians from across the world, and from all different denominations come to serve on YWAM (See picture previous page). Although their motivations and goals are similar, there is a richness of cultural diversity in worship and relationship to God. Many of the volunteers have not subscribed to faith. Many have a deep sense of personal responsibility that aims to share from what they have benefitted from in Australia. Others have a strong sense of attachment to PNG. Within this environment there is much space for interaction, and for the building of relationships through discussion of culture and faith. 

Final thoughts

YWAM-MS continues to provide a continued presence of Christ’s love and mercy in PNG through healthcare, education and relationship development. Participating in outreach has never felt like a short-term endeavour, but rather a contribution to a long and successful partnership. For me, it was a reminder to cherish the deeply-valued resources in Australia, whilst contributing to a presence which I very strongly feel will make a difference in the world. YWAM-MS is always looking for keen doctors, dentists and allied health professionals to join its team. 

Dr Thomas Chengxuan Lu     
Dr Thomas Chengxuan Lu is a general practice registrar in Sydney and a conjoint lecturer at UNSW. He has a keen interest in the intersection of medicine and faith.  

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  1. Alkan M. [ISRAELI VOLUNTEERS ON THE YWAM SHIP, PAPUA NEW GUINEA, 2018]. Harefuah. 2019;158(5):309-12
  2. YWAM Medical Ships. 2019 – Annual Report.