Heart health in Timor-Leste
We speak with Western Bulldogs AFL star Lin Jong about his exciting role as ambassador for the East Timor Hearts Fund, which provides life-saving heart surgery and healthcare for young people in Timor-Leste.
Airorth Magazine - April/May 2019
Words by: Sarah Hinder
Given that it’s one of Australia’s closest neighbouring countries, it can be hard to fathom the limitations in basic healthcare and access to surgical procedures in Timor-Leste. While the nation’s healthcare is slowly improving, it remains a third-world nation and one of the poorest countries in Asia. Rheumatic heart disease is one of its biggest health issues, and Timor-Leste's lack of specialist medical facilities often results in relatively simple heart conditions being left untreated.
The East Timor Hearts Fund is Australia’s only not-for-profit dedicated to ensuring young people from Timor-Leste receive life-saving heart surgery. The organisation provides specialist heart operations, aiming to bring up to 20 young Timorese patients with
the most critical cases to Australia each year to receive heart operations, as well as working alongside alongside partners in Timor-Leste to tackle root causes of the nation’s poor heart health. The fund was founded by cardiologist Dr Noel Bayley, who has travelled to Timor-Leste more than 20 times in the past decade, volunteering his skills to assess and bring young Timorese patients over to Australia for surgery.
Western Bulldogs AFL player Lin Jong became an ambassador for East Timor Hearts Fund in 2017. The charity hits close to home for Lin; his father Vitor was born in Timor-Leste and was forced to flee at the age of 18 to escape the devastation of the escalating civil war. Lin explains his decision to become an ambassador was influenced by his heritage and seeing just how different his life growing up in Australia has been from his dad’s formative experiences in Timor-Leste. “There are so many charities out there, but this one obviously hits home for me because of my background and my dad’s,” says Lin. “It’s also not a big charity, and is entirely volunteer-based so, for me, [being an ambassador] is about raising awareness and, hopefully, encouraging people to raise funds.”
Lin travelled to Timor-Leste with his partner and dad for the first time in October last year, visiting hospitals and schools around Dili and remote villages, as well as meeting some of his father’s relatives for the very first time. “We were shown around the local hospitals and got to visit a young patient who came to Australia to receive heart surgery. He and his dad invited us over for dinner, so we got to say ‘hello’ and see how his family were going following his surgery,” Lin explains. On seeing first-hand how the charity’s heart surgery changes the lives of people living in Timor-Leste, Lin says, “For me it was a big eye-opener, and was something that makes me appreciate what I have in Australia a lot more. It’s made me want to help out even more, now that I’ve been there.”
Still on the road to recovery from the atrocities committed during the Indonesian invasion and continuing periods of conflict which devastated the country from 1960 to 1999, Timor-Leste remains a relatively new destination on the tourism scene. Today, while continuing to rebuild from its dark history, the country is an incredibly authentic destination to visit. “It’s a really fantastic place to go,” says Lin. “The people in particular are great. In some of the remote villages, the kids and people live in pretty tough circumstances, but they are so welcoming and always have a smile. I really enjoyed my experience there and will go back there, for sure.”
When asked what everyday Australians can do to help the organisation, Lin responds that spreading the East Timor Hearts Fund’s message and raising awareness about the limited healthcare and resources available in Timor-Leste is the first step. “You know, a lot of Australians don’t even know where East Timor is,“ he explains, “And considering how close it is to Australia, it’s pretty amazing the amount of people that aren’t aware of its history and situation,” Lin says, “So, my part is really about raising that awareness.”
For more information visit easttimorheartsfund.org.au
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