“The only reason I live in Australia is a fluke of nature. So, I feel that the opportunity to contribute, if I can, means a lot to me…

Queensland’s Granite Belt landscape sat comfortably around Dr Dan Manahan as he explained why he continues to work to provide universal access to health care to the communities that he serves. That’s despite already giving almost 40 years to that effort. An important part of his work is the time he volunteers to Rocketship.

For rural medicine specialist Dr Dan Manahan, Rocketship represents the culmination of a journey that started when he was a medical student, driven by his belief in the importance of universal health care. Now Rocketship Board Chair, in 2016 Dan Manahan embarked on his first Rocketship project. That was in Timor-Leste where he helped deliver training to the first group of Rocketship family medicine trainees.

He went on to work with the second group of trainees as an examiner. However, these were not Dan’s first encounters with Timor-Leste. His journey to work in Timor-Leste actually started in Tonga in the late 1990s. Back then, Dan was as a medical student volunteering to work across three of the Tongan islands and amongst some of the more remote communities.

The realisation that he could help improve health standards in developing communities has never left him. He recalls in his inimitable way, while his work in Tonga provided the inspiration as a young medical student, his next stint in a Pacific community came because, “One day I was 50 and I thought I need to go now or I’m going to be too old for this gig.”

And as for the gig – it was a chance to work with Dr Dan Murphy in Timor-Leste. Dr Murphy had worked in Timor-Leste in the lead up to Independence during which he’d shown courage and determination developing a clinic that initially, he’d claimed, was akin to running a US army mobile surgical unit dealing with the wounds of war and conflict.

By the time Dan Manahan arrived, Timor had settled into calmer rhythm although it was then, as it is now, an impoverished community with few resources.

Finding Timor-Leste

In Timor-Leste the morning light lays an amber and orange border between a waking sky and the sea. In the quiet pre-dawn light, outrigger canoes carry subsistence fishermen out to sea.In four or five hours, the fishermen return to their beaches and carry whatever meagre catch they’ve landed past women gathering molluscs, crabs, small fish or seaweed.

The turning of the tide sets the rhythm of their lives.With peace and Independence, unlike the tide, time goes easy in Timor-Leste for all except those that work in Timorese medical centres in which health care providers work with a sense of urgency.
It is that way now, it was that way when Dr Dan Manahan worked as part of Dan Murphy’s team at the Bairo Pite Clinic in the capital Dili.

Dr Dan Manahan, a clear-cut physician with gentle features and thoughtful eyes brought with him a certain unpretentious sincerity and trademark circumspection that lives easily with his enthusiasm for life, adventure and enduring love for primary health care.  And his plainspoken personality that he describes as being more of a “Mitsubishi Triton kind of a guy rather than a Porsche man,” well suited the Bairo Pite Clinic.

What he found in Dr Dan Murphy was a gravel-voiced, matter-of-fact man from the USA’s Midwest. Murphy’s attitude was to, “be bold, figure out where you could go so that you have the potential of a big impact. Consider your own skills and how you might participate. Look for where, with hard work, you can actually accomplish something.”

It was an attitude that guided Dan Murphy until a heart attack took his life in 2020 while the 75-year-old was still treating patients.As a role model, Dan Murphy fits Dan Manahan’s perspective on what it takes to provide health care in Pacific communities.

Manahan explained it like this. “You need a generous heart, you need to be flexible. You need to be able to listen and look and have good peripheral vision to what things are important to a community and you need to understand that your views may not be the same as the community views in which you are going to work.”

A Chance Meeting

On returning to Australia, Dr Murphy’s inspiration had Dan Manahan thinking. He considered that the key to successfully helping Pacific Islander communities improve their health care was a program based on short health education projects that the communities had initiated.Married with four children and with a desire to be “the kind of guy who likes to be around and not be a fly-in, fly-out dad,” meant the idea of short duration projects was important to Manahan.

A chance meeting with Dr Lachlan McIver in Australia in 2015 provided the opportunity for which Dan Manahan had hoped.Then, Dr Lachlan McIver was a rural generalist and public health physician with experience visiting, living and working around the South Pacific and a plan to start a not-for-profit organisation that could help improve health care and medical training within Pacific countries.

By December that year McIver had cofounded Rocketship with Cairns anaesthetist Sam Jones.  McIver, a quietly spoken doctor with precise features, and one of those rare smiles that, depending on the circumstances, could dissolve into a sort of warm friendliness or unrelenting care, had a love of the importance of universal health care. That passion caught Dan’s imagination. He signed up for Rocketship.

“These doctors in every country we’ve been to, are really skilful people.”

Dan’s work in Timor-Leste ultimately went on to projects in Tonga and onto the Solomon Islands. All of which were part of his professional journey that grew out of his firm belief that there should always be equitable access to primary health care.Moreover, his experience in training young doctors fills him with the certainty that the training efforts Rocketship undertakes boost skilled and capable physicians. “These doctors in every country we’ve been to are really skilful people.”

In Memory Of A Pioneer

Dr Daniel Murphy died of a heart attack at the age of 75 on April 14, 2020. Around 300 people attend the burial of Dr Murphy at Becusi public cemetery in Dili in Timor-Leste on April 16. Newspaper reports at the time reported that the people of Timor-Leste were mourning an American doctor who had dedicated his life and skills for more than two decades to the health and well-being of Timorese people, particularly the poor.

Story by David Gilchrist