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Papua New Guinea dentist mentors local, US medics

LAE, Papua New Guinea --

Forty-four years ago, Bais Gwale was a young captain serving in the Australian Army as a dentist. In September 1974, Papua New Guinea declared its independence and just like that he was no longer a soldier serving Australia. His duties were now in support of the newly-formed PNG Defence Force making him the first medical officer in the entire service.

Now, he is posted in Port Moresby as the health services deputy director and served as the senior PNG Defence Force dentist for Pacific Angel 19-4.

Born in July 1948 in the Goroka province, Gwale is the oldest of nine children and the only one to pursue medicine. His father was a medical orderly in the Highlands province and while his first career choice was to become an Army officer, his mother forbade it and insisted he follow his father’s footsteps into the medical field.

“I decided to kill two birds with one stone and went into the military as a medical officer,” Gwale said. “That way I could give my mother what she wanted but still get what I want.”

Early in his military career he spent much of his time going from post to post treating his fellow soldiers, often venturing into the jungle with the troops. Doing so required a lot of travel which took him away from home for months at a time, putting strain on his family.

“I left the defence force for two years and went into private practice,” he said. “But then I was asked to work for the health department, where I stayed for 17 years.”

While working for the health department he held various positions including health advisor to government leaders. In 2003, the government came calling again but this time it was the PNG Defence Force calling him back to service.

During his tenure with the health department and the defence force, Gwale has served on many humanitarian missions in the Pacific region, including PAC Angel 15-4 — a U.S.-led humanitarian engagement — which took place in his home province of Goroka. Today, Gwale is back at it again, this time he’s in Lae, another city close to his heart.

“I have strong roots here in Lae because my father and mother were born here,” he said. “For the previous PAC Angel, I was the PNG Defence Force medical lead. My job was to help coordinate all the medical elements we participated in and manage the day-to-day activities while the team was in place. For this one, I chose not to take the medical lead responsibilities this time around so I can give one of my junior officers the chance to learn and lead.”

Gwale emphasized the importance of integrating services and exchanging information during humanitarian missions like PAC Angel.

“These missions are excellent opportunities to learn from one another,” he said. “For example, this week I saw some of the instruments the Americans use that I have never seen or used before. Getting familiar with the small differences in the way we practice and also exercising the big movements that go into responding to a disaster — all of it helps us get better.”

U.S. Air Force Maj. Nicole Smith worked with Gwale during PAC Angel.

“Maj. Gwale has been a pillar in the PNG medical community. It has been an honor and privilege to work with him here at PAC Angel,” she said. “Maj Gwale helped us understand the differences and challenges of working with patients in the local community.”

Now in his seventies and with nearly five decades of experience under his belt, Gwale’s influence on the Papua New Guinea medical community, specifically in dentistry, is undeniable. As he approaches retirement he is shifting his focus to preparing the next generation of dentists and medical officers.

“I’ve taught and mentored and trained hundreds of medical students over the years and now they’re all over the country," he said. "It makes me very proud to see them coming up and showing they are willing and ready to take on the responsibility of caring for our people.”