IAN Holten had finished training doctors in micro-surgery when he came to a crossroads.
Leaving a Sri Lankan hospital to get back to his hotel room, he stood in the street wondering whether to turn left or right.
On an impulse he went left.
Five minutes later a suicide bomber exploded in a marketplace behind him.
It’s only a short story but it explains how the plastic surgeon is still able to talk about his work from a Warrnambool skincare clinic.
It wasn’t enough to deter him from performing life-saving surgery.
Dr Holten is a volunteer with Interplast, an organisation which offers plastic and reconstructive surgery to impoverished regions of the globe.
The surgeon and registered nurse Sue McMillan have just returned from Vanuatu, Dr Holten’s 10th trip to work and train doctors on the island nation.
His laptop is full of images of horrific burns, disfigured flesh and people scarred beyond recognition. They’re gruesome but the surgeon keeps them close by to show how far patients have recovered a year after surgery.
He gives a graphic account of a dying girl with burns to 20 per cent of her body. It required a three-hour skin graft operation.
“The poor one had been like this for three weeks. The child was dying,” he said.
But a year later he looks back at the graphic pictures, proud that she didn’t.
Unfortunately two things are common in Dr Holten’s job: children and burns.
“Burns are very common over there (Vanuatu) because of primitive heating. They cook on fires in the hut and the kids just crawl and spill pots of hot water on themselves or roll onto the fires,” Dr Holten said.
A queue of patients stretches around a corner when the surgeon arrives at the hospital for his two-week stint each year. Children and infants are almost always given preference, to avoid growing up shunned by communities, where birth defects or injuries are seen as bad omens.
It’s easy to compare Vanuatu with Vietnam, Bali, Samoa, Sri Lanka, China and Ghana, where Dr Holten has also volunteered.
In Vanuatu the hope is that over time the local medical team will be trained to the point where Interplast is not needed.
“That’s the number one focus but there’s so many millions of people in the countries around us,” Dr Holten said.
“There’s so much to do.”