I was woken up on Sunday morning the 12th of January 2019 by a phone call and the familiar voice struck me.
And instantly, rushed in that guilty feeling. My heart broke, yet how was I supposed to feel the grief when I felt a haunting guilt.
The guilt of failing someone I have given hope. Someone who had become a friend, a sister and family.
I never thought I would choose this path nor did she choose me. But I found her and found it within my heart to accept and take on a challenge.
Now it’s all coming back to me. I am haunted by this guilt.
Twenty-one-year old Ruth Kaupa had lost her battle to breast cancer at around 5am in the early hours of that Sunday at the Angau hospital.
Ruth was surrounded by her immediate family members, closed relatives and friends holding hands as she slowly closed her eyes.
I met Ruth last year around June-July and did my first interview with her and both her parents at their home at Kamkumung in Lae.
I am not the cancer specialist or some medical practitioner. I began reporting reporting about cancer in PNG three ago and over that period I acquired some understanding of the problem and the treatment options available in PNG.
Some cancers are treatable. But in PNG treatment is lacking simply due to inadequate facilities.
If cancer is detected early, the chances of cure are better. Late diagnosis resulted in death.
There is a big ‘cancer awareness gap’ in PNG even though fundraising drives are held every year in the name of cancer.
The PNG National Cancer Centre located at Angau hospital in Lae is managed from Port Moresby and is still struggling to get a permanent radiation oncologist since the last full time Radiation Oncologist was the late Doctor John Niblett passed away in 2017.
The cancer centre established some 50 years ago had its in-patient wards demolished just earlier this month paving way for replacement.
But the few years of reporting about cancer took a toll on me as I blamed authorities for their lack of attention and immediate action.
Walking amongst the cancer patients in their wards was like entering a war torn hospital filled up with bomb blasted soldiers.
The pain is so visible in the patients eyes that some don’t complain anymore.
The day I met Ruth changed my approach altogether. I told Ruth and her parents that it was no point playing the blame game and waiting…. We had to help ourselves.
If the ships don’t come ashore then let’s swim to them.
And so with backing of the Lae Media, we took on the challenge for the Ruth Kaupa medical appeal.
Above all, it was Ruth that made that decision to be the face of a media campaign for better cancer treatment in this country. Not just for her but for every other women and girl out there.
Ruth’s father Brasty Kaupa recalls saying: “Although Ruth is gone, there are other Ruth’s out there and this is the story of cancer that every women needs to know and be prepared.”
Earlier in the week on Sunday after receiving the news of Ruth’s passing, I sat down trying to find the starting lines to my story. It was all blank, blank and blank. Not even some two to three words connected. The sentence construction took me all day and all night until 3am the next morning. Still not a one line sentence but just one word. It was guilt.
I figured this must not go on making me become a zombie finding a real purpose.
The few days of hopeless slumber following Ruth’s passing really pushed me to question myself.
What did I do wrong?
Have I failed Ruth?
I questioned myself and the grief that I am going through. How was I supposed to be grieving for someone who I failed?
My grief has now been haunting me because I chose to take on the fight instead of pointing the finger to someone else and expecting them to do it.
Would I have walked away a long time ago? Then I never would have come across this road with Ruth. But there are others like Ruth who are yet to discover the cancer they have. Others have passed away or are now in pain and silently suffering as they wait to die eventually.
But for how long would this go on? Something needs to be done!
Authorities continue to point out that cancer affects a minority of the country’s population so is the allocation of funding, resources and facilities is proportionate to the affected population.
Cancer treatment is very expensive. Only a small minority affected can help themselves.
I remember Ruth’s determination and spirited smile. She was ready and wanted to take on the fight. To be the face of the campaign. But at the back of her mind, it was the path PNG must take.
What many saw was that we were raising funds for Ruth to go for radiotherapy treatment overseas. Of course, it was.
We were running against time and everyone were being pushed to the limits and it was Ruth’s parents, Brasty and Bogel Kaupa who stood out the most.
It’s what every right thinking father and mother would do for their sick child.
Maybe I got too close. I would admit that, at some point, I put myself in the shoes of Ruth’s family asking myself, what if that was my daughter? my sister? or my mother? What would I do?
You tell me if I was wrong and you may be forgetting what it is like to be human.
All along, Ruth showed great determination. She was intelligent, respectful and knew what was coming ahead.
Her sincerity and appreciation to everyone who assisted her was overwhelming.
It was her determination to make it known to every women and girl in PNG that the cancer services in this country are inadequate. While we go on blaming the government and concerned authorities we might as well start helping ourselves.
Ruth is the second cancer patient that I have tried to help seek further treatment overseas. To be honest I was not looking forward to what happened. I had already been there and it was not happening again.
But visiting Ruth’s parents during the week and the conversing made me accept Ruth’s fate that though she didn’t deserve to lose her life in such way. Only God has the answers.
What you and I and everyone need to get out from Ruth’s struggle is not her death, but the life she lived.
Last year businessman and former Madang Governor who spoke following the passing of Dr Niblett said back then when he was health minister, the cancer unit was run down. He said there was reluctance within the DoH to really support the cancer unit.
“When you consider the money being used to build freeways, hotels, fund events mainly in Port Moresby, it is hard to come to terms when there is a real need for specialized treatment in PNG, particularly outside Port Moresby. This does not just cover cancer, the shortage of dialysis machines is another concern along with the trained specialists and consumables needed to provide treatment in PNG where many people have the choice of dying earlier or if they can raise money, seek treatment abroad,” Sir Peter Barter said.
We see and contribute to annual fundraisers by NGOs backed by reputable corporate houses in the name of cancer. Even the month of October is dedicated to cancer and where does all the money go?
Take a walk through the Angau Cancer wards and see the cancer patients. The pain and suffering of cancer is immense and intolerable.
They are family members, friends and loved ones who need your support and the same care as any other patient.
Coming this far with Ruth and her family will forever be my guilty grief.
Rest In Peace Ruth Kaupa