Noeline is 29. For years, the Malekula native has been trying unsuccessfully to have children. Recently, friends of hers told her about the imminent arrival of the Chinese hospital ship Peace Ark. She came to Port Vila, and with the assistance of the staff from Vila Central Hospital, arranged a consultation. She was transported to the ship, and had a nine-centimetre cyst removed from her left ovary.

“I hope now she can have children,” said her surgeon, who is on secondment from the navy medical university in China.

This is just one of many paths that people have followed to receive treatment or testing aboard the PLAN ship. With a complement of over 130 medical staff, eight operating theatres, and 300 beds, the ship can handle the volume.

Its equipment includes a full radiological testing lab and an MRI scanner, as well as ECG and other more common testing equipment. More than one person, expat and Ni Vanuatu alike, came to the ship to get testing they would otherwise have to travel overseas to get.

The ship’s staff are also competent in state of the art surgical techniques. One American man, suffering from an inguinal hernia in his groin, received advanced surgery. Speaking to the Daily Post as he recovered from the procedure, he explained that he had been told by a friend who’d received treatment back in 2014 that the ship was able to fix his condition with a minimal incision.

Many others received a clear diagnosis, but the ship was not equipped to handle their particular condition. One woman with a badly degraded knee could not be treated, because her own cartilage was too badly damaged, and replacing it with synthetic material was beyond the ship’s capabilities.

Others requiring long-term after-care were also unable to be treated. At the end of the media visit, Mission Commander Rear Admiral Guan Bai Lin sat down with reporters. He confirmed that over 1800 people have already accessed the ship for consultation. Out of that number, 1370 had used the ancillary services such as X-Ray, MRI or other medical tests. A further 400-plus have been seen in community visits by the ship’s outreach teams, he said.

This is the Rear Admiral’s second visit to Vanuatu. Guan did the pre-visit assessment prior to the Peace Ark’s 2014 mission.

Asked about the number of visitors this time compared to last time, he demurred. “We’re not trying to break any records,” he said. He emphasised that quality of care was what mattered. A medical mission operated within unique constraints, he said. Some people requiring long-term care could not be treated, even though the ship has the capability to perform the necessary surgical procedures.

“But if someone has a life-threatening condition, obviously we’ll do what’s necessary,” he said.

The dental clinic saw the most activity, seeing and treating hundreds daily.

As of Friday morning, 13 people had been admitted to the facility. A few had received treatment already, but most were still being prepped. A media liaison officer told the Daily Post That doctors were conducting consultations all day, and performing the necessary surgeries at night. “Busy time!” he said.

When the Peace Ark visited in 2014, it received over 5,000 people during its five-day stay. Confusion abounded when the massive crowds of people seeking treatment overwhelmed the single screening station.

This time round, members of the local Chinese community have stepped in to facilitate cooperation between Chinese military and local citizens. These people have been instrumental in assuring a more orderly intake process this time around.

Security was tight on the ship, and access to the wharf was strictly controlled. People were provided with shade and seating, and few expressed the kind of impatience or confusion seen during the ship’s first visit.

Most people reported that they’d arrived at 07:00 that morning. By 12:00, the line was virtually gone, and the morning’s intake had already been processed.

Inside the ship, some corridors were thronged, but everything was moving smoothly, and the Chinese crew remarked on how polite and friendly the Ni Vanuatu visitors were. Most communications took place in English, but VCH staff were present to translate into Bislama where necessary.

The visit highlights the massive incipient demand in Port Vila and throughout the country for more modern medical services.

The problem of how to respond to it is complex, to say the least. It’s not clear whether there’s been any improvement at all since the question was first raised in 2014.

This is a costly deployment for the Peace Ark, which only returns to China in January of next year. By that time, it will have travelled in excess of 30,000 nautical miles, across two oceans.