Modesto nurse-practitioner spends weeks on mission in primitive Papua New Guinea

It's a typical shift in the hospital emergency room for Pete Wonder, a Modesto nurse-practitioner.

"You hit the ground running. It's a very tense environment with an overwhelming number of patients to be seen," he said. "In a typical day, I would see injuries from falls, upper respiratory infections, migraine headaches, infections from drug abusers, a lot of pediatrics with flu, cough, everything from those who are critically ill to those with minor illnesses."

Life was far different for Wonder when he spent 2½ weeks in Papua New Guinea last month on a medical missionary trip with Marine Reach. The interdenominational Christian ministry, a part of Youth With a Mission, has ships that travel to poor countries, offering dental clinics, optometric services, eye surgery, health education, medical clinics and spiritual counseling.

"I have been on several short-term mission trips, as well as serving long term on overseas mission programs. But I have never seen anything like Papua New Guinea," Wonder, 58, said. "It was much more primitive than I thought it would be, and conditions were worse than I expected. Sanitation was nonexistent."

His ship went to the Gulf Province in the southern part of PNG. "They have no roads to access the villages. Transportation is by dugout canoe or ship," he said. "There's no telephone, no electricity, no cell phones, no communication whatsoever. It's very isolated."

Typically, he said, they would sail three to four hours to find a village, then take a dinghy to the muddy shoreline to ask if they could set up a medical clinic. The weather was humid and hot. The villagers usually offered to host the clinic in one of the village buildings -- longhouses built on stilts above the ever-present water and mud.

"There was no furniture. We'd just sit on the floor to do medical work," Wonder said. "There were no bathrooms, no running water. But people were very, very grateful. They'd cancel school and other activities while we were there."

The area is staffed by medical outposts, but it would take a full day to get to them by boat, and the care offered is very basic, Wonder said.

From HIV to dentistry

"We did a lot more tropical medicine than I've done before," he said. "We saw lots and lots of malaria. We distributed mosquito nets to local villagers. There was lots of tuberculosis -- TB was just endemic there. We also saw lots of tropical skin conditions -- parasites and funguses that attack the skin. There was one case of elephantiasis, which was interesting to me.

"Another thing was the high incidence of HIV. There was a tremendous amount of it, a much bigger problem there than in this country. There's not much we can do for them because there's not much access to retrovirus medications there. If they could get into the cities, they could get treatment."

Dental care was almost nonexistent. "Most never brushed their teeth," Wonder said. They have chewed betel nuts -- it's a stimulant -- for generations. It stains your teeth red and hastens decay, so their dental health was very poor. It wasn't strange to see young people in their 20s or 30s with significant tooth decay."

To combat that, Wonder and his co-workers gave everyone toothbrushes and toothpaste and showed people how to use them. "We were more successful with the young people than with the older ones."

One of Wonder's fondest memories is when they said goodbye to a village. "When we left a village, even at odd hours, the entire village would turn out to say goodbye," he said. "Hundreds of people are lining the bank, waving and thanking us for being there. They were always willing to go out of their way to help you out."

One family particularly stands out in his mind. The people were from the highlands and had traveled through the night to get to the medical clinic. "Probably about noontime, they finally made it through the long line of people," Wonder said. "They had worked so hard to get to us. They were so willing to do that -- no grumbling or complaining. They were such sweet people. Fortunately, they had medical problems I could take care of: bronchitis and pneumonia that they had had for several months. Treating them was simple -- antibiotics and cough medicine. Yet to them, this was a life-changing effect because they could finally get well."

In between clinics, the staff played volleyball and basketball with the villagers. "It was half the fun," Wonder said.

"They were so grateful at our being there, they planned huge feasts in our honor," he said. It was difficult, because they had no hygiene when they were preparing these meals. And I had to eat with my hands, which was a new experience for me. It was also quite a sacrifice for them; they might have one pig for a family, and they'd cook up several of them for us."

Spiritual health

Besides the medical treatment and socializing, the volunteers shared the message of God with the villagers.

"After we treated the people medically, we'd ask them if they'd be open to talking about their spiritual health. They were very open to that," Wonder said. "A long time ago, Christian missionaries came to the area and established churches. There are still churches around, with primarily women in them.

"Of course, this country is famous for its cannibalism and headhunting. For generations, they killed each other and ate each other. That has pretty much stopped for the last 20 years. You still find pockets of that. I'd have an old man tell me, 'Under this tree, we buried the skulls.'

"We shared a simple message that this was the acceptable time to give your whole heart to God. They were very receptive and glad to talk about spiritual subjects, even if they'd say, 'No, I'm enjoying my lifestyle too much to become a Christian.' It made wonderful conditions to talk about their spiritual life because they were very open to talking about it."

Wonder, who grew up in overseas locations, primarily Brazil and Haiti, because his father worked for the U.S. government, moved to Stockton when he was an adolescent. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in nursing from Seattle Pacific University and did graduate work at California State University, Sonoma, to earn his certificate to be a family nurse-practitioner.

He said he usually goes on mission trips with his wife, Nancy, but her job as a nursing instructor at Modesto Junior College prevented her from going on this trip.

"It was very encouraging to my faith," Wonder said of the trip. "It was a real faith-booster in many ways. I've been on mission trips enough to know they can go wrong; I felt I could sense people's prayers during this one."

And, he said, he'd like to join the same team again.

"This organization was unusually well run, and everything they did was selfless," he said. They are very spiritually minded people. I think sometimes you can get into ministries that are focused on numbers or too task-oriented. This organization was more interested in the people they could help rather than in numbers or accolades."

For more information about Reach Ministries, visit

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or