The Canberra couple funding a maternity hospital in West Timor

No-nonsense and down-to-earth, Canberra obstetrician Dr David O’Rourke is well known to local families, having delivered about 3000 babies over the last decade.

He and his wife Sue-Ann are also focused on newborns beyond Canberra. The couple has for the last five years funded the construction and operation of a maternity hospital in West Timor.

The O’Rourkes have foregone “well over” half a million dollars in patient fees from his private practice in Deakin to build the 25-bed facility in Soe, an inland, poverty-stricken town of about 30,000 people.
The couple has plans to double the size of the Mother Ignacia Hospital to 50 beds, so it can also cater for general admissions but continue to focus on child and maternal health.

The basic premise is that for any surgical case taken on in Canberra by Dr O’Rourke, he foregoes any out-of-pocket expenses that may usually be paid to him by the patient.

He instead asks his patient to make a tax-deductible contribution towards the hospital in West Timor.

“I’m very proud of David,” Sue-Ann says.

“I’ve never heard of another doctor doing it this way, foregoing their own income in order to help others.”

A former country GP in places such as Moree, Orange, Mudgee and Goulburn, David retrained as an obstetrician and gynaecologist in Canberra and Adelaide more than a decade go.

And, as is often the case, a stroke of serendipity sent David and Sue-Ann on their journey to West Timor.

It is part of the island of Timor, which is less than 700 kilometres across the Timor Sea from Darwin, but a world away from the privilege and easy life of Australia.

The people in West Timor live in poverty, suffer from malnutrition, have limited education and must make do with an under-resourced health system. Having a baby is a perilous experience, for both mother and child.

When he was training in Adelaide in 2007, David needed to have a skin cancer removed from his face. His surgeon, Dr Peter Riddle, had a long history of clinical work in West Timor and an association with the Flinders Overseas Health Group, with whom the O’Rourkes would eventually collaborate.

The Flinders Overseas Health Group is a collection of volunteer health professionals across Australia including doctors, nurses, pharmacists and laboratory scientists who give their time and expertise in the Eastern Indonesian province of Nusa Tenggara Timur, which includes West Timor.

After that initial meeting with Dr Riddle, David O’Rourke became involved with the Flinders group and travelled to West Timor for the first time in 2009, to offer some assistance in educating the local medical staff.

Sue-Ann remembers how life-changing that visit was for all of them. The level of poverty and the desperate need were almost overwhelming. The health facilities were borderline life-threatening.

“David came home really shocked by the conditions, hugely shocked,” she says.

“They were rewashing surgical gloves and repowdering them. Washing out catheter tubes and reusing them. The power would go out and the generator would kick in so the surgeon would have to operate with a head torch. There were squat toilets with mould all over them.

“Until you experience the conditions, you can’t understand the level of poverty.”

David also learned about the long-term goal to build a maternity hospital in the town of Soe. And that gave him something to focus on

“He said, ‘You know what? They need money, investment, infrastructure. They don’t need us to tell them how to do it our way, they need the money to do it their way,” Sue-Ann remembers.

David was, and remains, pragmatic about what could be done.

“It made us realise our society is so good. Things we take for granted and are just routine, are certainly not taken for granted there,” he says.

“It’s inequality by geography. If you’re born here, everything is fine, everything is laid on.

“It’s inequality by geography. If you’re born here, everything is fine, everything is laid on.”

Dr David O’Rourke

“You can’t change the world but as an individual you can make some difference in some way.

“But you have to let the local culture run the show. You can’t introduce a western-style practice over there.”

While David, 49, and Sue-Ann, 47, are not religious, they formed a strong bond with a local Catholic order of nuns, Religious of the Virgin Mary, who were passionate about getting the hospital built.

The formidable Mother Superior Sister Yasinta had previously, over many years raised the issue of high mortality rate for mothers and infants in West Timor as a result poor family structure, poverty, primitive transport and inadequate facilities.

It led to a collaboration between the O’Rourkes, the nuns and the Flinders Overseas Health Group.

The O’Rourkes would provide all the funding for the maternity hospital, if Flinders could help with the logistics and on-the-ground contacts.

How they would fund the hospital was fairly unique and undoubtedly altruistic.

“David said to me: ‘ What if our patients didn’t pay us?’. I thought, ‘OK, this is a problem. We need to eat’,” Sue-Ann says with a laugh.

They instead came up with part of his fees being donated to the hospital.

That worked well and with a lot of persistence and help from the local community, the Mother Ignacia Maternity Hospital was opened in 2016.

Last year, a sponsorship program called One Birth at a Time was added. For a $200 donation, a mother and family could have care for the birth of their child when they might otherwise have none.

The $200 donation covered free antenatal clinic visits, a supervised delivery at the hospital and a health pack to take home with the baby.

Birth sponsors are contacted by the hospital via email and send a letter of appreciation, birthing report and photos.

It’s hoped the hospital can eventually be self-sustaining with funding from the Indonesian government.

The nuns still help to run the hospital. It is ostensibly a secular service. Patients do not have to be Catholic to attend it.

“Their mission is to serve people. They treat everyone equally and I love that,” Sue-Ann says.

David and Sue-Ann have four children: Lily, 14, Jack, 10, and twins Harry and Tom, 6.

Their twin pregnancy was uncomplicated but still required plenty of antenatal care visits, multiple ultrasounds, spinal anaesthesia, elective caesarean section and special care nursery for 10 days for the new babies. All provided under the supervision of obstetrician, anaesthetist, paediatrician and midwifery and nursing staff.

“All this is routine and taken for granted in Australia, and the disparity of this and maternity care in West Timor (and many other parts of the world) is strikingly obvious,” David says.

They both understand the relative luxury of the Australian health system.

“I get upset when I think about it,” Sue-Ann says.

“I went for my first visit to the [West Timorese] hospital in February and these people are so gracious and grateful for anything, for any sort of help.

“We over here, get upset if everything is not perfect. Over there, they don’t even get upset if a baby doesn’t make it, they accept that.”

Tragically during Sue-Ann’s visit, a mother in labour died trying to get to the hospital because she could not cross a flood-swollen river.

It’s a struggle to understand such hardship exists on Australia’s doorstep.

“It’s a seven-hour flight from Sydney. They are one of our closest neighbours. It’s just abject poverty,” she says.

“I remember being in a cafe once and complaining I got the wrong order and David looked at me and said, ‘You know what? In Indonesia, they don’t get a choice. I thought, ‘Yes’ . That put me back in my box straight away.”

The hospital currently has two full-time doctors, nurses, midwives and ancillary staff and an ambulance. The Flinders Overseas Health Group recently donated an ultrasound machine.

“The eventual aim is for the Mother Ignacia Hospital to be a self -sustained health facility with 25 beds for general admissions and 25 beds for maternity admissions,” David says.

“It will be a centre for clinical activity to benefit the poor people of Soe as well as a facility for visiting teams from Australia to visit and deliver educational programs that will achieve sustainable health through education.”

This Mother’s Day, David is on-call so the family will probably have breakfast at their local cafe. Their thoughts will also be with the new mums embarking on the journey of motherhood in West Timor.

When asked what she enjoys about being a mother, Sue-Ann jokes: “I enjoy them when they’re asleep”.

But seriously.

“I just see the future. I just see a positive future, the continuation of the good in the world and I’m happy to pass on that ethos of helping the underprivileged.

“We have so much. Too much. We don’t need it.

“Kids keep you real. They keep you in the moment.”

In the end, the couple is motivated by a quote from Sir Winston Churchill: “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give”.

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