Meet The Australian CEOs And Doctors Fighting To Keep This East Timor Health Clinic And Its Patients Alive

Imagine a free health clinic that sees more than 200 out-patients a day, 50 in-patients a day, is operated by only 3 doctors, 6 midwives and runs on a daily budget of just $2300.

Welcome to the Bairo Pite Clinic in East Timor.

Established in 1999 in the middle of the post-independence uprising, Dr Dan Murphy built the BPC from the ground up.

Now 15 years on, US-born Dr Dan (as he is known as by the locals) continues to work at the clinic, and has done so without a single day of pay.

Despite being our second nearest neighbour, only 450km away from the west coast of Australia, East Timor is one of the poorest nations on earth with an average life expectancy of only 56 years.

The country struggles to handle easily treatable, common diseases. People often die from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea, leprosy, dengue fever, tuberculosis or child birth.

With a population of 1.2 million, Timor only one major national hospital, with just 200 beds. While it is assisted by three referral hospitals, the BPC is a vital part of the country’s health care system, and treats more patients living with HIV than any other health provider.

Murphy, who has committed himself to providing free, essential healthcare for the people of East Timor, starts his day at the clinic at 8am and works long into the night.

Every morning, seven days a week, he leads an entourage of foreign medical students, Timorese staff and visiting doctors, providing instructions for the management of patients admitted to the clinic.

Having treated more than one million people during his time at the BPC, Murphy started by helping Timorese rebels who’d been injured and tortured by occupying forces. Now he focuses on the treatment of widespread diseases and delivers up to 100 babies every month.

“I will stay until healthcare in Timor-Leste is equal to the high quality of care in the West, or until it all falls apart and I am no longer effective,” he said.

In 2011, Murphy’s hard work came to the attention of an Australian doctor keen to improve Timor’s health care. Dr Chris Fenton spent 25 years as a Sydney GP and is a former medical director at PNG for International SOS.

Dr Dan was scraping by, scrounging and begging for medical resources, when Dr Fenton saw the perfect opportunity for Australian-backed facility. He became the CEO in 2011, established a board of directors the following year, and paved the way for Australian CEOs and doctors to participate and help.

(R)Dr Dan Murphy with (L)Dr Chris Fenton in Timor.

Since then the BPC has attracted 13 board members, with some big names from Australia’s corporate world giving hands on support of trips to East Timor, as well as raising funds for the clinic back home.

They include:

  • Director of the Paediatric Infection Management Service at the Mater Children’s, Associate Professor Clare Nourse
  • Associate Professor in the Department of Surgery, Monash University, Andrew Cochrane
  • CFO Strategic Managing Director and Founder, Laura Raymer
  • CEO of Pulse Health Group, Phillipa Blakey
  • General Manager Finance at Domain Principal Group, Maria Bowling
  • Director of Business Development and Legal Affairs at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Christina Hardy
  • Founding director of Origin Capital Group, Frank Mattiussi

In just over two years the board and volunteers have contributed $300,000 of their own money into the BPC, says Fenton.

Ross Taylor, BPC’s chairman is Tenix CEO and is moving to run ASX-listed engineering company UGL. Taylor first became involved in the BPC when he decided he wanted to start dedicating some of his personal time to charity work.

“Before I had time to think about which one, Chris Fenton was introduced to me through a mutual friend,” and Taylor says the rest is history.

“The challenge that BPC involved appealed to me; the need was great, there was real relevance for me as an Australian… I had relevant skills to make an impact, and it was a ‘roll your sleeves up’ role.”

Taylor says the board members like to get their hands dirty. It’s been a rewarding experience, but has also challenged him to use his leadership skill in a new way.

“You have to consider that people are volunteering their time,” he explained. It’s about “keeping people motivated, respecting their opinions, and ensuring they are best placed to provide the most they can.”

“You cannot resort to command and control as you might as a CEO in a normal for-profit company, you need to achieve consensus with the broader group. This teaches you to focus on quite a different part of your management tool kit that you would only use intermittently in my normal day job.”

Business Insider asked Taylor if more Australian CEOs should invest their time and money in similar causes.

“Yes, but… people [need to] do it for the right reasons and not for appearances. They should at least give it. It is very rewarding. But if they do not want then that’s OK – each to their own.”

BPC Ward

Taylor told Business Insider he dedicates 10% of his time to the BPC, while Fenton does a staggering 40-50 hours of work a week for the charity on top of his duties as a doctor.

“I fly in and fly out to work in Queensland as a GP doing two weeks on and two weeks off, so that I have time available to work full time on BPC and travel to Timor.”

His reasoning?

“It is our job to care,” he said. “We are the major power for a number of our small neighbours.”

Fenton’s empathy and passion he has for the Timorese people and the BPC, work which he considers “the meaning of my life”.

“It is a privilege to work with the good people I work with all of whom do it selflessly, and it is a privilege to help such brave and uncomplaining people who bear their problems with such dignity.”

“Apart from caring for my family, this work is the point of my life,” Fenton said,

The clinic has now raised in excess of $400,000 a year, but to do its job properly, that figure needs to more than double.

“We are still a long way from the funding levels and staffing we require,” Taylor said.

Helen Moorfoot, the BPC’s Australian community coordinator and fundraiser says while the clinic scrapes by on $2300 a day, it needs at least $850,000 a year.

The charity has launched the “A Thousand Reasons” campaign, which Moorfoot hopes will see 850 companies give $1000 a year to make inroads into improving healthcare in East Timor.

“To run the bare minimum of a hospital we need $850,000 per year. Still that is not going to cover everything,” she said.

And it’s not just the locals who get sick. Volunteers working on the frontline are vulnerable too. One was recently air-lifted back to Australia after contracting dengue fever, and another caught amoebic dysentery and was ill for some months, while two others developed amoebic liver abscesses. Another suffers chronic lymphedema after contracting a filarial worm while working at the BPC.

Despite the impact on their personal health the volunteers continue to return, knowing they can at least access the appropriate healthcare when needed. The great majority of volunteers do return home well.

They do it to help patients like Zelia, a 13-year-old girl from a neighbouring mountain villages.

Zelia came to the clinic frail and ill. Diagnostic tests were sent back to Australia and revealed Acute Myleoid Leukeamia. The only facilities the BPC could manage was an isolation room and blood transfusions, while her symptoms and fever were treated.

But rallying together, and pooling their networks, the BPC supporters were able to find a generous benefactor who agreed to fund her chemotherapy treatment, which without she would have died.

Zelia was flown to Singapore for the chemotherapy, made a full recovery and has now lives a normal life back in Timor.

Zelia is lucky. A majority of children and adults die in East Timor from treatable illnesses. This is why the clinic is desperately looking for funding to help the local people.

For Moorfoot and Fenton, the issue is most Australians have only a passing interest in the struggles of the people in East Timor, and the politics of the dispute with the Australian government over oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.

Moorfoot says the BPC team are constantly working to not put the Timorese off side, knowing there is already tension.

“If we do it makes everything much harder for those on the ground,” she said.

BPC patients

The Australian and Timorese governments are currently in disagreement over an oil and gas treaty established in 2002.

The Timorese are fighting to have the treaty declared invalid, after Australia was allegedly found to have spied on the country while negotiations were taking place for ownership of the site.

Australia’s foreign aid budget to East Timor was cut by $15 million this year, down from $112 million last financial year to around $96 million.

But Moorfoot will keep fighting.

“We are going to continue support this little clinic for as long as they need us,” she said.

To find out more about the Bairo Pite Clinic, or to make a donation go here.

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