Lord of the dance

Pamela Oddy talks to physiotherapist Dr Peter Selvaratnam, who volunteered for a medical mission to Vanuatu and found himself putting on his dancing shoes.

Peter’s introduction to Ni-Van1 dance came in 2010, when he was the first physiotherapist to join a medical mission to Vanuatu with the Healthcare Christian Fellowship (HCF). “I started hearing about HCF’s work around 2004, when the head of its Australian group spoke at a function I attended,” Peter says. “He was keen to recruit me to a mission, but I was co-editing a textbook on headache at the time, family life was busy—and I must admit I was a bit timid about working in a developing country. So at first I took the easy way out and hid behind my editorial work.”

But he was not to be let off so easily. Volunteering was something of a family tradition, and Peter felt his late father, an Anglican priest who’d spent time as a missionary in Western Samoa, was urging him to take that path, too. “I heard him encouraging me to share my talents beyond my comfortable life in Australia, where I’ve lived since we moved here from Sri Lanka in 1976,” Peter says, “and I kept on hearing him!”

“So when I finished my editing task in 2009 I thought, ‘Right, the book is fantastic and I’ve learned a lot, but there’s more to life, I’m here for a purpose’ and doing an HCF mission trip became my passion.”

The passion soon swept up his 15-year-old daughter, Rachel, too. The second youngest of Peter and his wife Jeya’s two sons and two daughters, she was determined to accompany her father to Vanuatu, even when required to raise her own funding. She persuaded family members and friends to sponsor her, as they did again in 2011. The second time round she also needed to write to her school principal asking for permission to miss a week of term. The letter spelled out a change in her values that Peter and Jeya had already noted. “The mission work in Vanuatu last year showed me the direction I should take in my life,” she wrote, reflecting a new-found decision to pursue a career in nursing rather than her previous goal of fashion and photography.

“Rachel and I have now done two missions to Vanuatu. In 2010 we went to the island of Malekula, where there was only one doctor, and in 2011 to Ambae, where there’d been no doctor for five years.” Unsurprisingly, the HCF missionary team, which included doctors, nurses, dentists and counsellors, was flooded with patients, treating 800 over four days on Malekula and 1800 on Ambae.

Peter’s share on Ambae was 250 patients, 90 of whom came on a single day; quite a challenge for someone used to seeing two patients an hour. He rapidly re-thought his treatment strategy, and called people in 10 at a time, found out what sort of work each one did, then showed them how to do it in safer, more effective ways. Which is where the dancing comes in.

“I’d learned in 2010 on Malekula that the most effective way of showing my Ni-Van patients what to do was to adapt movements from traditional Ni-Van dances,” Peter explains with a grin. “The results were sometimes hilarious and they laughed like mad, but they remembered the exercises.”

While Peter was busy kicking up his—and his patients’ heels—Rachel helped run activities for the patients’ children, as well as becoming the mission’s official medical photographer. Peter says their shared volunteering experience has definitely strengthened their relationship “at an age where daughters are often closer to their mothers”.

“We have new things to talk about and share, and she was very protective of me during the mission, sometimes washing my clothes for me or pulling me into line when she thought I wasn’t taking things seriously enough.”

Asked whether he thinks his patients will continue to follow his advice now he has gone, Peter says, “By giving them pain relief, I built up their trust in me, so they may follow what I said or, if their back or neck starts to hurt again, remember my advice. Even if they learned only one thing from me, that’s a beginning, although I think the main thing they may have got out of our visit was the knowledge that we care.”

He’d certainly encourage other health professionals to volunteer their services to developing countries, noting there are plenty of opportunities available, whether or not people are comfortable with a faith-based environment such as HCF. But he cautions against volunteering “if you’re trying to make yourself feel good.”

“I think you actually need to feel you have a calling for it and gratitude for having the opportunity, that your heart reaches out to do it, and that way you feel compassion without being patronising.”

This year Peter is to travel to the island of Tanna to share his physio—and dancing—skills with another group of Ni-Vans, although this time it may be without Rachel, who has VCE commitments. But Rachel is determined not to miss out entirely. When exams are finally over, she will either travel back to Vanuatu or work with refugees in Malaysia—an unusual twist on Schoolies Week.

1. Short for ‘Ni-Vanuatu’, meaning the inhabitants of Vanuatu.

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