The year was 1966. The Vietnam War continued to rage, both America and the USSR had put spacecraft into lunar orbit, and Australia had introduced decimal currency.
In that same year, graduate nurses Lens and Betty Larwood accepted a call to work at Atoifi Adventist Hospital on the island of Malaita in Solomon Islands. It was not an easy decision to make.
Lens had a vision of taking health care to the people in their own villages.
Only the year before, in December 1965, another young graduate nurse, Brian Dunn, had been fatally speared after just 11 days at Atoifi hospital. Yet despite this tragedy and the isolation of the hospital, which could only be accessed by sea, Lens and Betty agreed to commit their lives to helping the estimated 60,000 Kwaio people on Malaita. They had an expansive vision of what the hospital could accomplish under God’s blessing.
Of necessity Lens became simultaneously the hospital’s business manager, nursing director, supervising engineer, marine operations manager and public relations manager.
As business manager, Lens had to operate the 91-bed hospital and (in 1973) a staff of 35 with a budget of just $A25,000. As public relations manager, Lens was required to keep the outside world aware of the hospital’s achievements and needs. He dealt with government officials, various dignitaries, staff members and visitors as well as the local population. He treated all he encountered with respect and courtesy and earned their love and approval in return.
Despite the limited budget and lack of building supplies on the island, Lens oversaw the construction of many new buildings, including a classroom block and library for a school of nursing named “The Brian Dunn Tutorial Block and Library”. There were no skilled tradesmen or building machinery available, so Lens had to be the architect, builder, financial manager and driving force behind each project.
Perhaps the greatest example of Lens’ visionary abilities was the construction of a hydro-electric generation plant—the first in Solomon Islands. With no technical training for such an enterprise, Lens obtained a Pelton wheel and generator and constructed the dam high above the hospital. Water travelled down a steep 200-metre metal pipeline to the generator house. For the first time the hospital could enjoy a fairly reliable supply of electricity without the difficulties and cost of running a diesel generator. Sadly, it was while maintaining this pipeline that Lens was killed when the tractor he was driving overturned and crushed him in 1979.
Lens had a vision of taking health care to the people in their own villages. To fulfil this vision, he established a string of bush clinics. Teams from the hospital were transported on the hospital launch—the Raratalau—to the disembarkation point. In the open sea, the team would board their heavily laden “tinny”, which would then make its way though the dangerous surf to land the medical patrol on the beach.
In 1973, at Lens’ instigation, the first surgical team from Sydney Adventist Hospital visited Atoifi hospital to assist with a backlog of surgery. This team consisted of surgeon Dr Clifford, anaesthetist Dr Millist and nurses Cheryl Borgas and Dawn Maberley.
During this visit the possibility of constructing an airstrip was discussed with Lens. However, it seemed like an overwhelming task from the beginning. The only suitable level land was covered with dense jungle. The only machinery available was a small tractor. And there was no money to finance it. Eventually it was proposed that if the money could be raised, Lens could construct the airstrip. He accepted the challenge, raised the funds and construction work began.
Two years later, the first plane, piloted by Colin Winch, landed on the airstrip. Staff and critically ill patients could finally access both the hospital and Honiara quickly. Around the same time, the film Big Sick Anytime was produced, highlighting the work being done at Atoifi and encouraging many to contribute to the 13th Sabbath offering for the hospital. The money from this offering helped purchase an operating microscope for visiting surgeons to use.
In 1978, the San medical personnel returned. This medical outreach was the beginning of what became a worldwide program from Sydney Adventist Hospital and its staff to other less fortunate countries.
Lens and Betty had three children—Kelvin, Colin and Sherilyn. At the time of Lens’ tragic death the children were all young. The responsibility for their upbringing now rested solely on Betty’s shoulders. She also worked as a nurse, midwife, teacher, hostess and anaesthetist. Although she had no formal anaesthetist training, she developed considerable skill at this task. This was illustrated when a patient presented with a very large dental tumour on her jaw that obstructed her eating and disfigured her face. Anaesthesia for such a case would have been very challenging for a trained anaesthetist even in a well-equipped Australian teaching hospital—which Atoifi was not. The surgery was undertaken by two visiting American doctors, Dr Marion and JoEllen Barnard with Betty as the anaesthetist. The operation was successful and the patient’s life changed. Betty’s anaesthetic skills that made the operation possible were subsequently acknowledged by a letter from the visiting surgical team.
All three of Lens’ and Betty’s children studied nursing, initially following in their parents’ footsteps. They then received further postgraduate qualifications and established successful careers. Kelvin studied medicine, specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology, and now practises in Nambour, Queensland.
Following Lens’ death, a group of those whose lives had been touched by his, conceived the idea of constructing a much-needed new church at Atoifi as a memorial to Lens and to Brian Dunn. This was built in 1985 and Betty was able to attend the church opening. After Lens’ death, she had moved to Nambour where she was an active and much-loved member of the church until her death in 2014.
One of Lens’ many professional contacts was Professor Roger Keesing, Professor of Anthropology at the Australian National University. Professor Keesing wrote the following tribute to Len:
“The non-Christians of the mountains have not been altogether friendly to missions or government. Yet when news of Lens’ tragic death reached us in the Sinalagu mountains, men, women and children were in tears and shock. They felt they had lost a brother, a man who had saved lives and worked tirelessly for the realisation of their aspirations.”
Professor Keesing expressed his “boundless admiration” for Lens’ contribution to humanity and stated that the Christianity that he represented “was a Christianity of love, dedication and selflessness”. Although he was an agnostic, the professor also noted that Lens was “an inspiration to all who knew him, regardless of their religious beliefs”.
“Through the years he won hundreds of friends, saved hundreds of lives and established in the minds of all with whom he worked, the principle on which the future of the Solomon Islands will depend: that brotherhood among peoples must rise above the differences of language, culture, regionalism and religion that divide us.”
Lens and Betty Larwood stand tall among the many dedicated Christian believers who have given their lives while helping their fellow men. Those of us privileged to have known them will never forget.
Dr Warren Millist is a retired anaesthetist living on the Gold Coast after working at the Sydney Adventist Hospital for 30 years from 1964 to 1994.