The story of Mareepea – Able to walk again…

As skipper Bob said about the rough, wet and unbearable 10 day sail across the Tasman and Coral Seas in April …

“If it wasn’t for the MSM flag flying above us and our mission to do some good once we got over here in Vanuatu, we could just as happily have turned around and gone back home!”

There are certainly times when things get tough. When the burden of the mission gets on top of you and you ask the question … “is it all worthwhile?”

Then you experience something like the miracle of Mareepea – a woman with Parkinsons Disease, confined for months to a matress on the floor who is given back the ability to walk. And you share her joy of re-gained mobility, of simply walking outside by yourself, of feeling the sun on your face and taking in the view from the veranda steps.

Then you realise, amidst the busy-ness, the deadlines, the late nights and the hardwork, that YES!! … this is what we came for, we were meant to be here, at this village, at this time, right now.

Yes, there is much need. And no, we can’t help everyone. But we could help Mareepea. And she can now walk again

Checkout the 2 minute video of Mareepea and her story by Dr Graeme Duke below.


The story is as follow…

During the running of the routine VPOB eye and medical screening clinic at Melsisi on the island of Pentecost, the local Nurse Edwige asked us to see two patients in the small adjacent hospital. MId morning we had a break from the screening and decided to go with the local nurse and a couple of our VPOB nurses and doctors to see them.
After seeing one woman we went to the room of the other. Mareepea is in her 60’s (I think?) and had been bed-bound for several months, being moved by her son (Freddy) or the nurses to a wheelchair for trips to the bathroom. She was otherwise confined to a mattress on the floor and the same room to eat, drink, sleep and live. Edwige was concerned because she had lost weight, was weak, could not walk, and had the shakes. She was worried about the possibility of a stroke or epilepsy. Could we take a look at her?

When we saw her it was clear from her tremor and her facial features that she had not had a stroke, nor did she have epilepsy – she was suffering from Parkinsons Disease. You may know someone with this condition – a degenerative neurological movement disorder that affects the small part of the brain that controls posture and muscle tone. This condition leads to tremors, difficulty with balance and moving, especially walking. It is usually treated in this country by expensive drugs taken daily that are readily available to us but not available in the village and it can be difficult to find the right dose without a specialist.
So the usual drug treatment was out of the question, especially in this remote village. She appeared doomed to spend the rest of her life lying on her mattress on the floor. I explained this to the nurse, but not the patient or her son, and then had a thought… Did she still have any strength in her wasted limbs?

Her arms and legs were thin and clearly she was frail. If I could only get her to stand still and support her weight? I suggested we help her up onto her feet and find out. It took two of us to achieve this. She seemed to have some strength in her legs to hold her weight but only with us supporting her balance and some of her weight. I asked the others to support her for me. I had spied a waist high bedside table in the corner of the room. I carried it over and asked her to hold on. She had just enough strength in her arms to hold her balance and in her legs to support her weight, but not enough to walk.

I told her we would let her lie down again and I would go away and think. Several of us had already had a silent prayer for this poor woman. I went straight to Rob and asked him could he make a 4-legged walking frame, out of wood or anything. I had asked the nurse – there were no walking frames in the hospital, nor the school, nor the whole village. It might just work, but could be a waste of time. I described to Rob the rough dimensions for the frame: not too short to make her bend or tall to make her stretch, wide enough to fit around her, but narrow enough to get through a doorway. Oh yes, and light-weight so she could move it but strong enough to support her weight. Rob said “Sure”, got excited, and went off to search for raw materials. He came back with a broken, unused, old aluminium chair frame. Would this do? Yes, possibly. Will it hold her weight once you have bent it into shape? “OK Matt lets go back to the boat to get our tools”.

I went back to the screening clinic now in full swing. 30min later they returned with their boxes of tools from Chimere. We were discussing the design when Robyn Hides, another doctor who was having a break found an old metal set of bedside drawers that had been discarded behind a shed, came back to say: What about this? Perfect! We would saw off the drawers, leave the 4 metal legs and maybe it would work. Rob, Matt, Mike, and I set to work. I keep leaving the medical and eye clinic to come back and inspect progress and help and interrupt and interfere. It took several hours of hard work. Rob and Matt and local assistants removed the drawers with the hack-saws, then filed back the sharp edges.

Rob went back to his mud brick clinic, and me back to the medical clinic. Meanwhile Matt filed the legs to make them safe, fixed two hand-grips to the horizontal bars with twine, and Mike sewed a basket to the front of the frame, and printed her name onto wide-surgical tape to label the whole contraption as her’s!

By now it was mid afternoon. We took the finished product into the hospital, brought Marypea out of her room in the wheel chair and explained what we had made. It was her’s to keep. She produced a huge grin but still appeared dubious, but clearly willing to try anything. We helped her to her feet and placed the frame in front. We explained how to hold it close, move slowly, and be careful not to fall over. All these instructions had to be translated into Bislama by the son and nurse. As Chesterton once wrote in another context: “There are an infinite number of angles at which one can fall, but only one in which you can stand straight!”

She gripped the handlebars and took a couple of shuffle, lifted the frame and placed it a little further in front, then took 3-4 more shuffles. Then her face lit up a big smile. Smiling doesn’t come easily to Parkinson’s patients because even the facial muscles are affected. Down the corridor she hobbled with a dozen on-lookers chatting and cheering, some giving advice or instruction, and her son in the background watching with surprise. She only walked 20m but it was more than what she had walked in several months at least.

Now she had freedom, the ability to walk, and can regain her muscle strength with exercise and not be house-bound (or hospital-bound) for the rest of her life. About a hour or so later we saw Marrapea slowly navigating the ramp to the front of the hospital supported by Freddie. Marrapea was mobile! Slowly, but surely Marrapea came up the ramp and looked across the bay and saw her village for the first time in months.

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