Heart and Soul: Flying Doctor in the Land of Hornbills

The FDS team (comprising a community nurse, midwife, doctor and health assistant) in Sarawak in the 1980s. Photos: Dr Loh Yunn Hua

Heart & Soul

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The Flying Doctor Service (FDS) under the Health Department of Sarawak, was set up to provide medical treatment, vaccinations and care of pregnant mothers in rural Sarawak. Many of these rural areas were only accessible then by rivers and undeveloped roads.

The FDS also provides medical evacuation for seriously ill patients and those injured by accidents.

While working in Miri Hospital, we had a medevac (medical evacuation) of a mother in obstructed labour. Though the helicopter was noisy and hot, I enjoyed flying in it.

I loved the scenery, the verdant forests and rivers meandering like giant snakes. One pilot I remember was Captain Bill Canada, a Vietnam veteran.

Flying in a Bell helicopter was very weather-dependent and could be hazardous. Each day, we used to glance at the sky to see whether we could take off. There were no weather reports then! Trips were postponed or cancelled when there were cloudy skies and thunderstorms.

Once, I was stranded for the night in Long Jaeh. We could not fly due to bad weather. That night, the villagers also celebrated the capture of wild boar. It was a carnival!

I saw the migration of herds of deer (payau) swimming across the upper reaches of the Tinjar river at Long Loyang. It reminded me of the herd migrations across the African savannah.

We were always welcomed by the villagers.

The writer shaking hands with the Penan headman. The writer shaking hands with the Penan headman.

Some longhouses had many doors and residents. Everyone, including school children, tried to postpone their activities for the day.

The common complaints among the people were aches and pains, coughs and colds, and skin diseases. There were no cases of diabetes or high blood pressure!

I was the Medical Health Officer for the Baram district in the 1980s. The public health services available were the malaria and tuberculosis control programmes, the Rural Health Improvement projects, and Environmental Health.

There wre many longhouses along the banks of the Baram river. The Penans were still mainly nomads, preferring to hunt with their blowpipes and their dogs.

I was amazed by the many varieties of rice grown in the Bario Highlands; some of them were very fragrant.

As the Medical Health Officer in charge of public health in the Baram district, I also visited the longhouses by long boat with our very skilful drivers. Along the way, I saw many monitor lizards sunning themselves by the river banks.

We met other river travellers along the way. These were usually farmers in their sunhats, paddling quietly, and other government staff working or visiting the rural areas.

Of course, it was not all work and no play for the medical health team. After work, we went fishing for big, freshwater river prawns (udang galah) and fish. River Bok in Ulu Tinjar teemed with fish leaping out of the waters like acrobats.

Sometimes, we stayed overnight at the longhouses. While there, we would give health talks.

We were at Long Terawan, near the famous world heritage site where some of the largest caves in the world are found. The waters of the river Melinau at the mouth of the Mulu caves were crystal clear. We could see the river bed with its fine sand and pebbles, vegetation and small fishes. It was like viewing an aquarium.

I remember the melodious black burung tiong (myna bird) with its orange beak, singing, laughing and "talking".

There were also fresh fishes and sweet oranges at Long Bangga. The expensive and highly prized empurau fish was abundant then.

Many of the longhouses we stopped at had primary schools, many of them residential. How the children loved to see us, despite being given the painful vaccinations!

Curious and welcoming children at Long San, Sarawak. The rural health clinic is in the background. Curious and welcoming children at Long San, Sarawak. The rural health clinic is in the background.

A visit by the flying doctor team was like a social event. Besides the doctor, there was also a community nurse, midwife and a male health assistant. Everyone wanted to be seen, touched, have there blood pressure checked and the stethoscope on their chests.

I even saw grandmothers breastfeeding their grandchildren while their mothers were at work in the farms. Some mothers brought their babies to work using beautifully bead-decorated baby carriers strapped to their backs. I also loved their beautiful, beaded sun hats, known as sa’ong. From the pattern of the beads and the wearer's body tattoos, one could tell their social class and longhouse.

As a sign of beauty, the older Kayan and Kenyah ladies had long ear lobes. When they were young, their ear lobes were pierced and then became elongated by wearing heavy brass rings.

In their spare time, the men mended their fishing nets, sharpened their hunting tools and played the melodic sape. We were invited to participate in the hornbill dance.

The writer (middle) at the Long Temala camp. The writer (middle) at the Long Temala camp.

Yes, so much to learn and observe of nature and the peoples in the rural Baram district of Sarawak.

I really enjoyed my stint as a Flying Doctor and Medical Health Officer there.

Truly, to know Sarawak is to love Sarawak.

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