Australian volunteers alongside paediatric trainees in Timor

For six months Sam Brophy-Williams volunteered as a Paediatric Registrar at Timor-Leste’s national hospital, where he worked with a group of Timorese paediatric trainees on course to become the country’s first domestically trained specialist doctors.

We spoke to Sam while on assignment about his experiences of work and life in Timor-Leste and what he hopes to bring back home to Australia.


What is a typical day for you on assignment in Timor-Leste?

I leave our lovely tropical garden and walk about 10 minutes to Hospital Nacional Guido Valadares, the only tertiary hospital in Timor-Leste. I see familiar faces each morning among the school kids, the market sellers, the roadside mechanic shops and enthusiastic ‘bondia’ (‘good morning’ in Portuguese) are exchanged.

The morning handover of the paediatric department can be hard listening. In a young country with an underfunded healthcare system and challenges of human resources and logistics, stories of obstructed labours, late presentations, and neglected tropical diseases in very unwell, malnourished children are the norm.

The paediatric trainees I work with though are inspiration enough to keep going.

The dozen or so trainees are on track to become Timor-Leste’s first nationally trained specialist doctors, and their dedication and vision for the future is inspiring.

On through the day we look after children and babies from all over Timor-Leste, inpatients and outpatients. My role is supervising, mentoring and teaching the paediatric trainees, at the bedside and in formal sessions. The clinical caseload is varied and challenging, and resources are limited, necessitating strong clinical acumen and creative problem solving.

Sam Brophy Williams volunteered as a paediatric registrar at Hospital Nacional Guido Valadares
Australian volunteer Sam Brophy-Williams stands outside the Hospital Nacional Guido Valadares. Supplied: Sam Brophy-Williams
Australian volunteer Sam Brophy Williams checking chemotherapy drugs with a colleague in Timor Leste
Sam Brophy-Williams checking chemotherapy drugs with a colleague. Supplied: Sam Brophy-Williams

What have been the biggest challenges while volunteering?

Facing those cases that you could manage with the resources to which we’ve become accustomed in Australia but can’t yet deal with in Timor. The sickest patients can be great for teaching, and are essential in stoking the fires for development and improvement, but that doesn’t make it any easier to realise that you have reached the limits of what you can do for a patient and have been found wanting.

What has been the most surprising part about your assignment?

Delving into the complex history and culture of this country has been a fantastic, confronting, and rewarding journey. I’ve learned a great deal, much of it not the sort of thing you can read in the official record.

How does life in Timor-Leste compare to Australia? 

Timor-Leste is a delightful place to live.

We live in a tropical jungle, eat delicious fresh food both at roadside stalls and fancy restaurants, spend our weekends snorkelling with clown fish, climbing stunning mountains, swimming in waterfalls, and laughing with our colleagues.

Sure, it’s different - the traffic light has largely been replaced by the car horn, not everything works quite as smoothly as it could - but that’s part of the charm!

Sam Brophy-Williams at Hospital Nacional Guido demonstrating a medical technique on a mannequin baby
Sam Brophy-Williams demonstrates a medical technique on a mannequin. Supplied: Sam Brophy-Williams
Aerial view of Lospalos and Dili Timor Leste
Aerial view of Lospalos and Dili, Timor-Leste. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono

What inspired you to volunteer at this time in your life? 

My partner and I have been quite nomadic for the last six years and our last home before Timor-Leste was Darwin. Working in the top end, such a short flight away from the different world that is healthcare in Timor-Leste, I couldn’t help but be drawn to it. It’s a fascinating country with a rich history.

I’m senior enough to have some expertise to share, but not so far progressed in my career that I have many ties keeping me in Australia, so career-wise it was perfect timing.

How do you see the assignment impacting on your work and life once back in Australia?

Back in Australia I will be working in a brand new paediatric intensive care unit - a clinical environment almost entirely alien from that which I’ve become used to in Timor-Leste. I look forward to taking my Timor-Leste perspective with me to fully appreciate just how fortunate we are in Australia, and to remind myself of what I’d like everyone in the world to have access to.