Dr Lauren Chalmers, Maluk Timor TB Program Mentor, Dili, East Timor
As I was in a doctors’ mess back in 2012, someone told me that the LSTM Diploma of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene was the best 3 months of their life. I pondered how this could be. It only took a few days in Liverpool in 2013 to realise why.
Fast-forward 6 years, with Foundation Years and Core Medical Training under my belt, here I am in East Timor, using all I learnt during the diploma as a volunteer for an NGO called Maluk Timor. And if I hadn’t made the connection through a friend from the DTM&H, I probably wouldn’t be here.
Firstly, let me tell you about East Timor (aka Timor-Leste). I suppose I must admit to my ignorance… I didn’t even know East Timor was a country. Embarrassing as that was, East Timor has allowed me in with open arms. Timorese people have a heart-warming smile, and despite all the troubles, somewhat contagious laughter, and an annoyingly high likelihood of being able to sing like Whitney Houston. Kind natured, it’s amazing how natural it is for Timorese people to strike up a conversation with absolute strangers in a guesthouse… at 6:30am.
Having celebrated its 20th birthday recently, East Timor is one of the youngest countries in the world, surviving Portuguese colonization followed by a gruesome and bloody resistance to occupation by Indonesia. Humanitarian aid is over in East Timor, with the evolution of a new country, it is now the true sense of working in development. A phenomenal 74% of the population in Timor is below the age of 35. That is a lot of young minds to influence. In theory, universal health coverage exists, but stories from the frontline show that the quality of this care is lacking. There’s a reason why Maluk Timor’s by-line is ‘Advancing Quality Care Together’.
Maluk Timor works in improving the quality of care in 9 different programs, and I am fortunate enough to mentor a fabulous team of young and enthusiastic healthcare workers as part of the Maluk Timor TB Team. A large part of my job is training my team to be the future of TB care in Timor. Project development also plays a huge role, working with my team, other NGOs and the National TB Program to identify gaps in diagnosing and managing TB in East Timor, and designing projects that are feasible and sustainable. Not only did the DTM&H fill me with TB knowledge, it provided me with a solid introduction to public health that I have been able to put into action. Our imminent projects include contact tracing for both drug-sensitive and drug-resistant TB, as well as using previous drug-resistant TB patients as peer counsellors.
I have had several of those moments where I find myself a million miles away from an understaffed NHS ward. Notably, whilst taking part in a Tuk-Tuk parade on a tropical island celebrating International TB Day, or being involved in the updating of National TB Guidelines. There is so much to do to help TB care here, and with an enthusiastic National TB Program and a global aim for Ending TB by 2035, now is a truly exciting time to work in TB in East Timor.
This country is stunning, with beautiful coastlines and rugged mountains there are plenty of adventures to be had. With the most biodiverse waters in the world, the snorkelling and diving are first class, and during the season it’s hard not to spot a whale. As much as I have fallen in admiration with the beauty of the country, I have fallen in love with the people. Maluk means my family, my friends, my kinship.
When my time comes to leave, it’s certainly going to be a sad one.
Dr Lauren Chalmers