Listen: Shila Yukuli Paia in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty
Shila Yukuli Paia has a boundless enthusiasm for life and is on a mission to help the people of her native Papua New Guinea. Her passion to improve health, education and the status of women is truly infectious. For many years, she has been an advocate for social justice and public health especially for developing nations.
She grew up in a remote area of the Papua New Guinea highlands. In early March, the PNG highlands, including the region her own family live, were hit by a massive earthquake, causing devastating mudslides that trapped many communities.
The natural disaster highlighted the desperate need that PNG has for medical supplies. Equipment from the former Royal Adelaide Hospital (RAH) is being redirected to the PNG highlands, thanks to Shila. A current PhD student at Flinders University, she already has a degree in Public Health and International Development. It is hardly surprising that she has used her expertise and local knowledge to secure the massive and urgently needed donation.
Every Piece of Equipment will Save Lives in PNG
Shila’s knowledge and contacts within PNG’s health services has enabled her to identify goods available from the decommissioned RAH that will help to cover critical shortfalls in medical supplies and obtain apparatus from ultrasounds to theatre and surgical goods – assisting in everything from childbirth to better immunisation and basic primary health care.
“Every piece that has been made available from the old RAH will be useful,” explains Shila, “but I’m especially pleased to have secured a surgical microscope, which I am hoping to donate to the only cancer treatment centre in PNG, the Angau Memorial Hospital in Lae.”
In PNG, Shila was Barred from High School
Shila grew up in the remote Hela Province of PNG. The first Primary School in her region was built when she was six years old, but Shila was considered too stunted to be admitted. She attended anyway and was soon outperforming the other students. The community wouldn’t allow her to attend high school, so Shila ran away, managing to fund her own education. Based on her grades she was selected to study nursing and later managed community development projects for World Vision and public health programs for CDI.
In 2002 Shila was awarded an AusAID scholarship and completed a Bachelor of Health Science through Victoria University and in 2012 completed a Master of International Development from Flinders University. Shila is currently enrolled in the Doctor of Public Health program at Flinders University. Her research explores the impact of cultural practices on child nutrition and will shape her “Soil Child” project in PNG, implemented through Fulcrum Aid.
Born in a Cave in the PNG Highlands
Shila’s aim is to ensure the biomedical equipment and clinical supplies are transported to remote areas within PNG, as an estimated 85% of the country’s population is in rural locations. There are many shortages in medical supplies and services. Shila knows the privations of remote highlands communities all too well; Shila and her six siblings were all born in either caves or open bushland due to the absence of medical facilities in their region. Her family situation reflects the lack of medical resources for remote communities in PNG.
“Access to services isn’t there. Basic primary health care isn’t there,” Shila explains. “Women are dying giving birth and children are dying, so all of the donated equipment is going to be of great use. Simple things like syringes are going to make a lot of difference because it means a mother can take her child to a clinic for immunisation.”
Volunteers Pack the First Container Load for PNG
As one of 29 endorsed project applications for equipment from the old RAH, Shila’s project collected her initial allocation of supplies in February, which were stored in a Hackham warehouse that has been provided by SA-based charity organisation Kokoda Angels, until they are shipped to PNG. She is also especially grateful for help from Dr Robert Young and the South Australian Intensive Care Association for providing the funds needed for the shipment logistics.
Shila has help from volunteers in Adelaide to perform the massive task of sorting, cataloguing, labelling and packing a shipping container the medical items that have filled the warehouse floor space. “It will take at least a week to complete such a big task,” she says. “We probably have more than one full container of goods. If that is the case, we will try to raise more funds to send another container later.”
Shila wants packing to be completed by the end of April, followed by five weeks’ transportation by sea before the container lands in the PNG coastal city of Lae at the end of June. She will also arrive in Lae with three doctors from South Australia - Dr Yasmin Endlich, Dr Chris Acot and Dr Robert Young – and Nurse Sharon Philip, who will travel with the equipment by land transport to Tari in Hela Province. After attending an official handover ceremony, the Adelaide contingent will spend several days ensuring the proper installation and training of local health workers to use all the medical apparatus.
“Because I have been in communication with PNG health administration and the provincial health advisors, I know that every item we send to PNG is going to be of great value,” says Shila. “It is going to help save lives.”
Donate to Shila’s ‘Soil Child’ Project in PNG
The last thing on Shila’s wish list is a four-wheel drive, which will be a great help in getting medical supplies remote parts of PNG. It would cost many times the Australian price to buy such a vehicle in PNG. A Four-wheel drive is essential to reach many areas. The very difficult access to most areas of PNG is now compounded by the massive mudslides after the earthquake and many aftershocks.
With her determination, charm and enthusiasm it doesn’t seem out of the question that she can make it happen. If you would like to make that wish a reality you can donate to her Soil Child Project. Shila says she called the program Soil Child, “Based on the philosophy that life begins in the soil and people connect to the land for all sustenance.”