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When Associate Professor Liz Eckermann invited Dr Soodsada Nalongsack to Deakin University via an Australia Leadership Awards Fellowship, she was fully aware it would be a case of fine-tuning her leadership skills rather than starting from the basics.
“I had already seen Soodsada in action in her home country of Lao PDR,” said Associate Professor Eckermann from the Alfred Deakin Research Institute (ADRI).
“We had arrived at a health clinic where a very ill baby had just been brought in.
“The health workers did not know what to do so Soodsada, who is a paediatrician, just took over.
“She pushed the health workers out of the way then she put the baby in the unconscious position.
“When she was told there was no money for medicine, she looked straight at me, and sent me off to get some.
“The baby’s life was saved.”
Dr Nalongsack, a senior medical administration officer in Champasake province in Lao PDR, has been part of Associate Professor’s research work looking at the impact of yu fai and “mother roasting” on the health of young mothers and their children.
Yu fai is the process of exposing mothers and their young babies to extreme heat for as long as 45 days.
It is believed to have both cultural and medicinal benefits.
However, Lao PDR has some of the highest mortality and morbidity rates among mothers and infants in the world and Yu fai is thought to be one of the main courses.
Despite her training as a paediatrician, Dr Nalongsack herself underwent yu fai, sustaining rash-like burns the first time, and severe asthma the second.
“I have always believed in yu fai as a very important part of giving birth in my country,” she said.
“Working with Liz, I can see that it has the potential to cause a lot of illnesses suffered by mothers and children.
“I would say I have now gone from a 90 per cent supporter of yu fai to being 50/50 about it.
“Like Liz, I think it is very important that we know all the facts, and then we work to try and make yu fai safer.”
That means coming up with more effective ways of generating the heat.
“Burning wood is the most common way of heating the huts in which the women sit, often right over the fire,” Associate Professor Eckermann said.
“That causes a lot of smoke which must contribute to the breathing problems.
“Another social issue is that older children are taken out of school to go and collect fire wood.
“The people of Lao PDR want to continue yu fai, what I want to do is help show them through our research that it is the cause of the high morbidity and mortality rates, then encourage them to use safer heating methods that don’t give off smoke.”
Associate Professor Eckermann plans to work with Deakin colleagues in engineering and the Institute for Frontier Materials to come up with a suitable product and encouraging her people to use alternative heating sources will be a major goal for Dr Nalongsack when she returns home in three months.
“While I am here I wish to gain an understanding of contemporary maternal and child healthcare delivery as practised in Australia,” she said.
“I will learn how to undertake participatory action research with local Communities in Champasake which will result in improved health care delivery at our District Hospital.
“I will learn how to implement community driven action plans which will lead to improved healthcare for the people of Champasake Province.”
During her time in Australia, Dr Nalongsack will visit the Mercy Hospital and Melbourne and Barwon Health’s operations in Geelong.
She has already managed a number of other important achievements since arriving in mid-July.
Because Lao PDR is a landlocked country, Dr Nalongsack had not seen the ocean until she visited Associate Professor’s home in Breamlea, on the Victorian coast.
A short trip down the road to Anglesea produced the first sighting of a kangaroo.
“And I am getting used to the cold,” she smiled.