WARNING: Graphic pictures:
A GROUP of good Samaritans is racing against the clock to bring a three-year-old from Papua New Guinea to Australia to treat him for an extremely rare but curable form of cancer that is devouring his face.
Born into absolute squalor in Banana Block, a roughshod settlement in the highlands of PNG, Bongre Anton Peter began life as a healthy baby boy. But shortly after his first birthday in 2015, he developed swelling in his eyes.
When Bongre’s parents took him to the local hospital, they gave him eye drops and sent him home.
MISDIAGNOSIS AFTER MISDIAGNOSIS
A year later in March 2016, when the tumour popped out from Bongre’s right eyelid, his parents brought him back to the hospital, where he was misdiagnosed again. The possibility of cancer was never raised until March of this year when Bongre’s parents took him to see a visiting eye specialist from Africa.
The specialist confirmed Bongre had Retinoblastoma — a cancer that grows in the immature eye cells of children — and sent him to a larger hospital in the city of Mt Hagen for chemotherapy to prepare him for surgery. Nine out 10 cases of retinoblastoma are cured this way.
By that stage the tumour had grown so large, it needed to be treated with radiation treatment before surgery was possible. But as radiation treatment is not available in PNG, Bongre was sent home with a grim diagnosis. Doctors have given him five months to live.
SOCIAL MEDIA STEPS IN
Where the doctors gave up, PNG’s small but active social media community stepped in, with hundreds of people praying and appealing for help on Facebook.
One of those messages was seen by Michael Williams, a Port Moresby-based member of the Simbu Children’s Foundation, a charity that funds travel for sick kids in PNG.
“I felt so much for Bongre when I saw his photo, I thought he must be in lots of pain,” Williams said. “But he actually seems to live a normal life because he doesn’t know what the tumour is. He just thinks he has a very sore eye.”
Williams then enlisted the aid of Greg Sheppard, an Australian lawyer based in Port Moresby who paid for Bongre and his parents to fly to the capital for a second medical opinion.
A SECOND TUMOUR
The next person to come to the party was Cath Porter, an Australian working for Twivey Lawyers in Port Moresby. She created the Save Bongre Facebook page that now has 2,500-plus members and paid $1,500 for a CT scan.
But the scan brought more bad news: Bongre, who is now under observation at Port Moresby General Hospital, has a second tumour growing inside his left eye.
His only hope — radiation therapy — lies in Australia and a spaghetti of variables needed to get him here: A surgeon and hospital willing to operate, emergency passports, a medical visa from the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby and a ballpark figure of $100,000 to cover costs.
“Everyone is working so hard but I’m getting so frustrated waiting for answers,” said Porter. “Getting into the High Commission is very difficult. Time is against us.”
A NEW HOPE
In the past few days, hundreds more jumped aboard the Bongre bandwagon. More than $5,000 in donations have been collected. Operation Smile Australia, a charity that helps children with facial deformities in developing countries, is examining Bongre’s case. And in Brisbane, Children’s Health Queensland ophthalmology specialists at Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital have reviewed Bongre’s case and are advising his doctors in PNG.
“Now I’ve gotten help I am very happy,” said Bongre’s teary-eyed mother during an interview with EMTV in Port Moresby. “God will bless these people.”
HOW CAN YOU HELP BONGRE?
1. Donate securely via an Australian-based Gofundme campaign.
2) Contact Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and ask him to fast-track Bongre’s medical visa.