Published On: Thu, Jul 11th, 2019

Wendy Grey Rogerson: Midwife’s life calling turns out to be a jungle life saver

Wendy Grey Rogerson

Wendy Grey Rogerson worked as a midwife in the Borneo jungle for three years (Image: NC)

He had a high fever and I suspected septicaemia. His wife and small child looked on anxiously. The nearest hospital was in the town of Sandakan, 300 miles away on the east coast of this vast South-East Asian island. There was only one way to get there: by dugout canoe down the Kinabatangan river. It was an arduous, often dangerous fiveday journey – something I knew all too well as I had made the same trip in reverse just two weeks earlier to get here. Looking at Ulor, I knew it was too much but I was torn. I was a nurse, not a doctor, and the facilities in the clinic were limited.We had one way of communicating with the outside world: a teleradio, used at pre-arranged times with our contact in Sandakan. I sent a message to the doctor, asking for his advice. His reply was unequivocal: I was to operate on Ulor without delay. I studied my copy of the medical textbook Gray’s Anatomy, identifying the blood vessels and nerves closest to the knee. This was an area best left to the specialists but I had little choice if I was to save this young father.

My assistants were Father Arnold and Andrew – Borneans from Sarawak, who established the Anglican mission where the clinic was based – and my housemate Joan, an Australian teacher in the mission school.

I gave Ulor an anaesthetic using a mask sprayed with ethyl chloride. When he was unconscious I made an incision in the knee. Thick pus came pouring out.

That was when I noticed my male helpers disappearing. Fortunately Joan was less squeamish and continued to keep the mask in place and pass me what I needed. I cleaned the area, inserted a drainage tube and stitched it. Now all I could do was watch and wait…

It was May 1960 and I was 30 years old, spending three years in what was then the British colony of North Borneo (today part of Malaysia).

It was about as far from my old life as it was possible to be. I grew up in Amble, a town on the North Sea coast in Northumberland, where my father was the vicar.

My younger brother Joe was sent to boarding school, so I lost my main playmate and took solace in my books. How I longed to have adventures like those I read about!

I trained to be a nurse in London at Charing Cross Hospital, returning to the North-East to do my midwifery, and was enjoying my job in Newcastle, running a Girl Guide company, singing in my church choir, when I attended the talk that would change my life.

There I learned that vast parts of the world had no doctors or nurses. I knew that I was being called to serve overseas. I chose to go to Borneo, where I felt the need was greatest.

The heat and humidity hit me on arrival. Even London summers had been too hot for my liking! I never did get used to the climate.

After a month’s sailing, I arrived in Kuching, on the west coast of Borneo, where I spent a few weeks learning the ropes with two British nurses. I had my first taste of what was to come when I accompanied one of them, Gwynnedd, to see a man who had broken his leg.


Nurse Wendy would use a canoe to get around the jungle and reach her patients (Image: NC)

We walked for hours, climbed up and scrambled down mountains, waded through rivers and crossed narrow log bridges over precipices – all in tropical heat and rain – to reach the patient in his traditional longhouse home.

After having to wait until the village witch doctor allowed us access to the patient, Gwynnedd told me we were going to operate, putting me in charge of the morphine mask and recruiting local men to help to realign the bones.

A few weeks later I sailed for the mission in Tongud – days during which we passed the odd timber camp and heard more creatures than we saw due to the thick vegetation. I got a shock when I saw my new home. It was a hut in a clearing in the forest, raised three feet from the ground, with walls made of bark, a palmleaf roof and a floor of bamboo.

A curtain separated my bed from Joan’s. There was no electricity and no running water. We did have our own loo – a hole in the ground about 30 metres away. The building’s elevation did not keep out unwanted visitors. I returned to my room one night exhausted, suffering from dysentery, to see a scorpion on the bedroom wall.


Wendy accompanies a patient to the river bank to start the long journey to hospital (Image: NC)

Somehow I managed to kill it with the knife I had just been given as a gift by the local headman. Later, snakes took up residence in the walls; we grew to accept them as they controlled the other main pests – rats.

The clinic which I ran served people from near and far: whoever needed it. People were cautious at first: I was a strange white woman, and their medicine until now had comprised a form of traditional witchcraft.

But trust was quickly established. Most of my supplies came from the government, the Red Cross and Unicef, but I was hugely grateful to friends back home who pledged half a crown a week so I could buy a kerosene fridge for the clinic.

My mother’s fundraising bought us an engine for the boat so we could make that hospital trip – there would be many over the years – in just two days. Many of the illnesses and conditions I treated were caused by unsanitary living conditions. Scabies, malaria, bronchitis, pneumonia, ringworm, hookworm and malnutrition were all rife.

Here on the Equator the evenings were long – it got dark at around six – but there was no time to be bored or lonely.

There were reports, letters and my diary to write; bread to bake using our tiny oven over a Primus stove, trying not to notice the weevils in the flour. Or I might help Joan with the schoolwork.

I remember the time we taught the children Scottish country dancing. As we twirled around in the midday heat, I did think it was a case of mad dogs and Englishmen – sorry, Scotsmen.

During school holidays we closed the clinic and Joan and I would travel to Sandakan and stay in the boarding house attached to the Anglican school, which was run by nuns, who became close friends.

We went on picnics to the beach and spent our evenings playing Scrabble.


Wendy climbs the lodged steps to a typical Borneo longhouse (Image: NC)

Perhaps it was inevitable that so far from home, and with more males than females among the expats, feelings would sometimes run riot. More than one man declared his love for me and I myself fell for a BritishArmy captain, Rob.

A British priest I knew, who must have previously seen me as rather straitlaced, declared after stumbling across us at the beach one day: “I’m pleased to see you’re a normal woman!” But I realised that Rob and I were not compatible, and broke it off. I felt dreadful as I knew he was heartbroken.

As well as dealing with the illnesses of others I had my own to contend with.

I ended up having my tonsils removed under local anaesthetic in a Sandakan doctor’s surgery. Sitting on a chair, a bucket on my lap, I continually recited the 23rd Psalm to get me through it.

It fills me with horror when I think about it now.

The Midwife of Borneo

Wendy’s book, Midwife of Borneo, is now available to buy (Image: NC)

And what of Ulor? He recovered and returned to his village. Several months later he came back to see me, proudly telling me that he could now run and hunt as well as he could before the operation. I wept when I left Tongud after three years. I loved it but I knew I could not remain in that climate.

I was thinking about doing mission work in Canada, where my brother was living, when I went to tea with my former vicar and his wife and met to the living in their curate, Colin Rogerson.

We were married four months later and went on to have two daughters, Catherine and Jane. I have long wanted to write a book about that special time. Finally, at the age of 89, my dream has come true.

Midwife Of Borneo By Wendy Grey Rogerson and Barbara Fox (S.P.C.K, £9.99).

To order, call the Express Bookshop on 01872 562310, or send a cheque/postal order made payable to Express Bookshop to: Borneo Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth, Cornwall, TR11 4WJ or visit express – UK delivery is free.

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