Project Canterbury

Dr. Welchman of Bugotu

By Ellen Wilson

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1935.

Chapter V. 1897-8

"We look back and wonder how we got through it all. We can only thank God, Who in His mercy gave us spirit, and kept us from despair."

So wrote Dr. Welchman in June, 1898; yet when he arrived in November, 1897, all seemed well and the School work was in full swing.

Soon, however, his work was made heavier by the care of three outside patients. The first was a trader, who had blown off his hand and injured his head when fishing with dynamite. His ship was lying off Gavutu, and that entailed many boat journeys in the hot sun. That patient died and was brought for burial to Siota, but another trader came to anchor off Siota with a nasty wound in his head, inflicted by the axe of a native. This entailed an operation and three weeks of anxious care, and when he was discharged, Mr. Browning came to be doctored suffering from sunstroke. When Mr. Browning was fit to go back to work Dr. Welchman went over to Savo and Guadalcanal to give their Christmas Communion to William Keda, Hugo Goravaka and George Basile. They had waited long for it, and but for Dr. Welchman's coming would have waited in vain. It was the first Celebration on Guadalcanal since, possibly, the days of the Spaniards in the sixteenth century.

Meanwhile, on St. Valentine's day, an official, who ought to have known better, seeing he had been in the Islands many years, brought and left at Siota a sick boy belonging to Roviana, who was suffering from dysentery. Even had Dr. Welchman been there, who knew the danger from [30/31] infection, the boy could hardly have been sent back in an open boat under a tropical sun. It would have meant almost certain death; as it was, he recovered and was able to return home.

This was the fateful news that greeted Dr. Welchman on his return from Guadalcanal the next day. There was just a hope that with the greatest care the infection might be prevented from spreading. Alas! the hope was vain, and two days later the first case appeared and proved fatal, and from that time on boy after boy succumbed.

At first one of the schoolrooms was used as a hospital, but that could not be properly isolated, and the need for a separated hospital became imperative. Fortunately, there was a large amount of thatch ready and available, and at 9.15 one morning the boys were sent out, some to clear the ground at Gidu na-gao, a flat space under the hill near the shore, some to collect material. The boys worked with a will, and incredible as it may seem to Europeans, all the patients were carried down and laid in their bed places in the new building by 5 p.m. The doctor's stretcher, table, and books were carried down, and he himself followed at eight o'clock. From that time on Dr. Welchman remained in the hospital on the shore, while Mr. Wilson looked after the boys and the work on the hill.

It is well known what a repulsive illness dysentery is to nurse, and Dr. Welchman was doctor and nurse combined, nobly assisted by a small band of selected boys. The strain never relaxed--there was the constant attendance to their needs; the watch lest a restless patient should get up and slip out, obeying their natural instinct; the persuasion needed to take the distasteful medicine and food; for no Melanesian takes kindly to invalid slops, they long for good yams and kumaras.

[32] For three long months the epidemic lasted, and the store of medicine, arrowroot, and milk, gave out. This was no soitow to the sick boys; they craved only for sardines; but the slender store of these was soon exhausted.

Besides these anxieties, Dr. Welchman was haunted by the fear that his colleague would succumb in his turn. "R.P. is anything but well," he writes on the 17th of March, "and begins to look ghastly; I shall have him knocked up too before long." But he himself had to consent to R.P. giving a turn sometimes in the night watches.

One after another the boys died, one in a few hours, giving himself up, as natives do, to die without a struggle. Two were baptized on their death beds. Another was David Margay, who had come to help in the teaching. He was a native of Raga, New Hebrides, but had been in Australia, where he had come in contact with Dr. Collette. As he lay dying, but still conscious, he sent this short message to him: "Tell him you did me good, and I tried to do good." So passed away a very good and faithful teacher.

What were Dr. Welchman's thoughts in those long hours of watching? Did they turn to those other long watches only a year ago? Then he was fighting for the life of the woman who had trusted herself to him. Now he was fighting to preserve the life of the boys whose parents had entrusted them to his care. Then it was the wreck of his own home that was involved; now it was the wreckage of Siota and all their plans.

Nothing of his thoughts appears in the entries in his diary. Only one day of a funeral and a fresh death he wrote, "I feel utterly dispirited and useless."

In the midst of the epidemic, the official who had left the boy called in, and Dr. Welchman reproached him bitterly for what he had done. "You have killed me," he [32/33] said. And perhaps those two terrible experiences within fourteen months did kill something in him, killed a lighter vein in his nature, and life took on a more austere aspect and anything approaching frivolity became intolerable.

In a letter written to Norfolk Island on the 10th of March, he says, "Wilson looks after everything above, school, services and work: and I cannot be grateful enough that he is with me. I have had a temporary hospital built, a native hut, on the beach, and I have a fresh gang of boys each day to come and nurse. They make capital nurses on the whole. ... It is most heart-rending work, for nothing seems to touch the complaint, and the insufficiency of the medicine is only equalled by the pace at which they run down. I have been learning daily the lesson of 'His appointment.' It is a sad trial, and I fear that it will do us harm, for a time at least, in other ways; but it is in God's hands, and He must do as He thinks fit."

Gradually the attacks became less virulent, until, towards the end of April, the hospital was empty and all were pronounced convalescent. "Much of it seems like a bad dream," Dr. Welchman wrote later; but eleven graves in the cemetery remain to show that it was a grim reality.

One night, at this time, another tragedy occurred; cries of grief were heard coming from Boromoli on the other side of the harbour, and it appeared that a boy had gone down at dusk to the shore to wash a food bowl, when a crocodile crept up and carried him off. Knowing the habits of a crocodile and its haunts, two of the Siota boys hunted about on their side of the water and four days later they found the skull. The crocodile had carried his prey across the harbour, devoured him, and then thrown up the skull, as is their wont. It was packed up in a box and sent back to Boromoli.

[34] No sooner was the hospital empty than Dr. Welchman himself succumbed and was very ill. For a short time Mr. Wilson had everything on his hands with a terrible fear that the patient might not have strength to combat the disease.

Relief came on the 17th of May with the arrival of the Southern Cross with Mr. Comins on board; and Mr. Wilson was able to leave in her for his own district of San Cristoval, where he in his turn was struck down by dysentery.

By this time Dr. Welchman was out of danger but still very weak. On the 28th of May the entry runs, "Still lazy. Cut out a pair of trousers from cloth Soga had given to Isabella to make them for him. As she did not know how, she came to me." One is permitted to wonder what manner of garment finally left the hands of Isabella!

On Whitsunday he gave thanks for his recovery; and it is interesting to read that Paul Marita was baptized that evening with the deacon Hugo Goravaka as sponsor. Thirty-two years later Paul Marita, priest, passed away, after very faithful service, on San Cristoval.

Not very long before this Soga had come with a party to Halavo and brought a good report from Bugotu. Figirima had severely punished some of his people for going on raids by destroying their gardens and burning their houses. Soga agreed with Dr. Welchman that it would be wiser for him not to return to Bugotu until later, for fear of bringing any infection, and the two friends parted for the last time.

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