SEVEN years ago, Whakatane woman Leonie Riddick was a newly graduated doctor working at Whakatane Hospital. These days, Leonie, or Sister Remedii as she is now known, is living in Papua New Guinea, bringing medical and pastoral care to its remote inhabitants. It’s a role she says has always been her calling.
Answering that call several years ago, she left her hospital job and packed up her Whakatane flat and set out on a mission to work with the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara, a group of Catholic sisters founded in Argentina and now working all over the world. “[We work] in places nobody else wants to go to such as Syria and Tajikistan,” she says.
Sister Remedii travelled to America to join the convent and begin three years of religious study. Following completion of an additional year in Italy, she was then assigned a mission to provide pastoral and medical care in Papua New Guinea alongside a group of six other nuns from around the world.
Sister Remedii says she had first met the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara when travelling and, “within 15 minutes, I knew that was where I wanted to be. They were exactly what I had been looking for. And besides, they were young and joyful and bouncy and really, really loud.”
Now in her third year in Papua New Guinea, she says that joyfulness is also reflected in their convent. “People think nuns are quiet, and some orders are. But we have a lot of fun. We sing and dance and laugh a lot.” Sister Remedii says she has no doubts about her life path. “This is where God wants me to be,” she says.
The undeveloped environment in which she works with sporadic supplies of electricity and running water, and sometimes with neither, do not appear to faze Sister Remedii. Electricity to the convent is only for three to four hours a night. While the convent has access to running water, the nearby medical clinic didn’t until recently and as for the remote clinics she carries out once a month, supply of either is unlikely.
Travelling on long journeys by foot, sometimes by canoe where there is no road access or along forestry roads, to provide medical care for people who may never have seen a western doctor, or a foreign woman, can have its challenges.
“Sometimes the children will scream and run away,” she laughs, but in other areas where relationships have been built, “they will run and give me a big hug”. But it’s the strong cultural beliefs that provide the biggest challenges.
“There’s really no concept of viruses or bacteria causing illness,” she says. Illness is often seen as the result of sorcery, or “village sickness,” evil spirits in the village, she says. The result is that people are often very ill by the time they come to a medical post.
“I’ve had cases such as a young girl who had a 10-year infection in her leg that had spread to the bone.” The infection had become so bad an amputation was needed. The amputation was carried out in a hospital, although occasionally Sister Remedii is required to carry out minor surgeries herself, sometimes by torchlight.
She recalls on another occasion, being called to a woman found giving birth, alone, in the bush.
Sister Remedii says the baby had been born by the time she arrived. The mother had been walking from her village, in labour, for nearly 24 hours. She had been heading for the hospital, her husband staying in the village to mind the children while she just walked off alone.
Despite suffering from dehydration and blood loss, the woman survived along with her baby, who, it was discovered, had her heart on the right side of her chest.
While a hospital does exist in the region, with some very good doctors, it’s a long way from the remote areas, and resources taken for granted in western hospitals are often not available. Drugs are limited, and diagnostic capabilities are low. “We don’t have access to high tech equipment, MRIs or anything like that. The x-rays are often out of order and we don’t have proper lab facilities to confirm even basic illnesses,” she says. “It improves my diagnostic skills because I’ve got nothing else to rely on.”
Aside from medical care, Sister Remedii also provides pastoral care to the community, as well as helping with administration at the Lujan Home for Girls.
“We have around 20 girls, and some of them have been there for years. It really is their home and we are like family,” she says. While the reasons the girls are in the home varies, she says in many cases, it’s due to young girls being forced into marriage. Sometimes it’s girls who have health problems.
Other times, it’s girls who are being hunted. “They’ve been accused by their village as being a sorcerer, or witch.” While the safe house was intended for girls in their teens, Sister Remedii says they also have girls as young as three. “We’re not going to turn away a girl who is dying,” she says.
Back in Whakatane to visit family this month, Sister Remedii says she’s been wandering the aisles of the supermarket wide-eyed, as is usually the case when she first comes back. “So many things.”
But the lack of such items in her day to day life, including her beloved New Zealand cheese, pales against the faith and calling Sister Remedii adheres to. “I feel I’m exactly where I should be. This is the family that God chose for me.”
Sister Remedii hopes to take her final vows within the next year. If anyone would like to contribute to Sister Remedii’s work in Papua New Guinea, donations can be made at St Peter
Chanel Catholic Church or at www.ssvmmissions.org