Volunteer Doctor Debryna Dewi Lumanauw Is Bridging Indonesia's Urban-Rural Healthcare Gap

By Richard Lord

A youthful veteran of emergency medicine, Debryna Dewi Lumanauw wants to use her skills to bridge Indonesia's urban-rural healthcare gap

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Cover  Debryna Dewi Lumanauw

All medical workers are heroes. But some, like Debryna Dewi Lumanauw, are maybe just a bit more heroic than others. Aged just 29, she has already crammed in a huge amount, from helping the victims of numerous natural disasters, to working as a volunteer doctor in Covid hospitals, to providing the only medical care in impoverished rural areas of her native Indonesia.

Field medicine wasn’t exactly what she originally had in mind, however. Born in Magelang, a town in the dead centre of Java, she went to secondary school in Singapore. That was when she conceived of medicine as a career, mainly as a result of watching medical TV shows, and she began medical school aged just 16.

“I was just a kid,” she says. “Fortunately I kind of liked it. I thought it would be like a medical drama; I never thought it could be what I’m doing now.”

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Above  Debryna Dewi Lumanauw

She got her first taste of field medicine in 2010, when she was on holiday in Magelang just as Indonesia’s most active volcano, Mount Merapi, located about 30km away, erupted catastrophically, killing several hundred people.

“I took a drive to a town near the volcano. There was a camp there, and it looked very chaotic, so I just jumped in and asked if I could help. I didn’t do anything big, just cleaning wounds, but it just felt very different, dealing with people who really need your help. It gives people reassurance, just knowing that someone is there to help them. I knew that this was what I really wanted to do.”

She then worked as a volunteer on the USNS Mercy hospital ship when it visited Indonesia, mainly acting as a translator for American doctors. After qualifying as a doctor aged 23, she worked for a year in rural Bali before heading off to study surgery in Berlin. Then she received an offer to work as a research scholar in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, a position that had been recommended to her by a doctor she met on the USNS Mercy. The hospital is the main trauma centre for Los Angeles County, which made it a pretty novel experience for her.

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I feel like medicine becomes the easiest part; the social side and how to communicate are much more difficult, and you don’t learn that in medical school
Debryna Dewi Lumanauw

“It was so different. The people I was working with were all experienced emergency physicians. When patients come to ER, they do whatever they can to keep them alive. It was not something you ever see in Indonesia. The first time I saw a gunshot wound, I was very excited. My professor told me I shouldn’t be, because I was going to see three or four of them every day.”

After returning home, she started working with official search-and-rescue team INASAR, during a period when Indonesia suffered numerous disasters: two tsumanis, the Lion Air Flight 610 crash, earthquakes and mudslides in Java, and the Jakarta floods. Not content with that, she also resolved to help some of Indonesia’s least privileged people, travelling between disaster relief deployments to the remote Kei Islands, part of the Maluku group in the east of the country, to work at a clinic run by an NGO offering free medical care.

“It’s been probably the most eye-opening experience of all for me,” she says. “I keep going back as many times as I can.

“I see a lot of rare diseases, like leprosy and neonatal tetanus. I also have to deal with issues that are not medical but social. I have to face patients who do not want any medical treatment because of some traditional ritual, and I have to respect that. I feel like medicine becomes the easiest part; the social side and how to communicate are much more difficult, and you don’t learn that in medical school.

“But the people are so nice. Because they get free healthcare, they want to give something back, and often they give me a bag or corn or a durian from their garden. Unfortunately I don’t like durian.”

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In March 2020, early in the pandemic, she volunteered to work at Jakarta’s Wisma Atlet Kemayoran emergency Covid hospital, which she says was a confusing time, with doctors unsure about the nature of the condition they were trying to treat. Then, as case numbers in Indonesia started to rise, she moved to another Covid ward, also in Jakarta, at Pertamina Central Hospital.

She followed that by travelling to the island of Flores, again to provide free medical care in rural areas. Her work there, she says, has highlighted what she refers to as “this crazy health disparity between urban and rural Indonesia”.

Her plan is to try to do something about that. “I want to try to build networks between rural Indonesia and Jakarta. I can only make a small difference with what I’m doing now. I want to empower people—to provide an opportunity to educate people in rural areas about healthcare, so they can take care of people themselves.”

Judging from her previous track record, it probably won’t take her long.

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