The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life as we know it, and in ways, we would never have imagined possible. The last 15 months have been challenging for us, as we know they have been for everyone.

With the ongoing international border restrictions, it is undeniably more difficult to bring children to Australia for critical treatment. Yet, calls for our support have not wavered.

Despite the barriers, we remain as committed as ever to our Mission – to facilitate life-saving and life-changing surgery for disadvantaged children from developing countries. To do this, we’ve needed to adapt some of our operations. Below is an outline of how we will continue to deliver on our Mission, in this new norm.

In Australia at The Retreat

When the pandemic first descended upon us back in March 2020, we sent as many children as we could back home, providing their medical conditions permitted.  Seven children remained with us at our Retreat in Kilmore, all at various stages of their life-changing journeys. In spite of the many delays to surgeries because of the extended lockdowns, by December 2020, Koko from Papua New Guinea and Rachael from Zambia completed their orthopaedic treatments and headed back home happy and healthy. Nichole, from the Philippines, who was treated for her severe scoliosis, was not far behind and returned home in April 2021. 

Currently, we have four young people at The Retreat. From Papua New Guinea, Sonia is in the final stages of her treatment to lengthen her leg and walk pain-free. Kyla Joy from the Philippines is healing from numerous reconstructive surgeries for severe burns. Meanwhile, young Ilona, also from Papua New Guinea, is due to have her second orthopaedic surgery very soon. Finally, Christina from Tanzania is midway through her treatment and rehabilitation for her severely bowed legs.

Approved overseas cases

We have 11 children from various countries approved for surgery in Australia. We also have an additional 16 children whose cases are currently under review. For the most critical of the approved cases, we are in the process of applying for compassionate medical travel exemptions to Australia from the Australian Border Force.

Two such urgent cases are: Trang, 15, from Vietnam, and Zenilda, 17, from Timor- Leste.

Both girls have severe scoliosis. So stark are their conditions, they have had to stop attending school. They both suffer from painful spasms, inflammation and cardiovascular problems. They also have difficulties breathing, and their mobility is significantly compromised.

Without appropriate treatment, Trang and Zenilda’s scoliosis will progressively get worse, impacting the quality and even longevity of their lives. Trang and Zenilda are at a critical point. Without suitable treatment options in their home countries, we must get them to Australia for specialist care as soon as we can.

We have lined up exceptional medical teams for both girls who are ready to go. We are now waiting for the final paperwork to apply for compassionate medical travel exemptions to travel to Australia. 

As per our usual model of care, once they arrive in Australia, pre and post-surgery, Trang and Zenilda will be looked after at our Retreat. We will keep you posted on Trang and Zenilda, and all our other children approved for surgery in Australia.

Extension of in-country medical support

Working with our in-country representatives and local medical personnel, clinics and hospitals, we are also stepping up our in-country support. 

While the more complex part of a child’s surgery and treatment will still occur in Australia, we are now facilitating interim treatments and minor surgeries in-country for a number of our cases. This approach will alleviate some of the immediate pain and suffering for the kids while they are waiting, and expedite their treatment when they finally get to Australia.

Five-year-old Delma from Papua New Guinea is an example. Delma was severely burnt when she rolled into an open fire at just eight months old. Due to the remote location of her village, she received limited treatment.

Poor Delma has many scar tissues and tight burn contractures, causing her much pain and impacting her mobility. Due to the contractures, she cannot lift her right arm or bend her right leg fully. Sadly, this will only get worse if it is not dealt with soon.

Although our plan is still to bring Delma to Australia (when we can do so) for the more complex elements of her reconstructive treatment, we are currently facilitating interim surgery in Papua New Guinea to give her some relief now.

Delma recently had surgery to release some of her contracted skin at Kundiawa Hospital in Papua New Guinea. She is recovering well. When she finally arrives in Australia, the medical interventions already undertaken should expedite Delma’s treatment here.

In-country surgery and treatment

We are also exploring options to exclusively facilitate some surgeries and treatments in-country. Working with some of our partner doctors in Australia, we are assessing opportunities to collaborate with a very select number of overseas hospitals and medical facilities. These organisations have strong links with our partnered doctors and share our vision.

We are currently developing such a partnership with three hospitals in Vietnam. One of our surgeons in Melbourne has an ongoing relationship with these hospitals, and has been facilitating training programmes and other initiatives on-site for many years. We are working together to cultivate this collaboration and will update you further as we progress.

As the pandemic evolves, no doubt it will throw us some more curveballs. We promise, however, to remain adaptable and flexible so that we can continue to achieve our Mission and help all those children who desperately need surgery and treatment.

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank our medical teams, volunteers, donors and supporters who have stayed by our side throughout this pandemic. Thank you for your support and friendship, and for putting smiles on so many beautiful little faces. Without you, our work would be impossible.

Elizabeth Lodge, CEO, Children First Foundation
9 June 2021