Kiribati cancer patient returns home as border reopen

Tamaroa (back row, fourth from left) with MacKay Memorial Hospital staff. PHOTO: MacKay Memorial Hospital

A Kiribati teenager has safely returned to his home country on Monday after being stranded in Taiwan for over two and a half years due to strict COVID-19 border controls, the Taipei-based MacKay Memorial Hospital said.

The 17-year-old, identified only as Tamaroa, first came to Taiwan in August 2019 under an international medical cooperation arrangement between the two countries, which were diplomatic allies at that time, the hospital said. 

Tamaroa had undergone cancer treatment and was set to return to Kiribati in 2020 but was then barred from doing so after his country closed its borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Doctors then found that cancer cells in Tamaroa had spread to other parts of his body, forcing him to undergo further treatment at Mackay hospital.

In addition to his cancer treatment, the hospital also helped to fit a prosthetic leg on Tamaroa in June 2021 and arranged follow-up rehab, as well as gave him two COVID-19 vaccination shots.

After more than two years, Kiribati finally reopened its borders in January this year.

Following a longer-than-expected 935-day stay, Tamaroa bid farewell to Taiwan on Monday afternoon to board a flight back to Kiribati, the hospital said.

Back in 2019, after Tamaroa came to Taiwan and had leg amputation surgery before beginning his required chemotherapy, Taiwan and Kiribati suddenly announced an end to official diplomatic relations in September after the Pacific island nation decided to switch recognition to Beijing.

After the severance of ties, the Kiribati government asked to transfer Tamaroa and six other Kiribati patients undergoing treatment in Mackay Hospital to medical institutes in China instead.

However, the hospital insisted that it was willing to continue treating the Kiribati patients.

The Kiribati health department agreed to the hospital’s proposal, allowing the Kiribati patients to continue their treatment in Mackay until they were fully recovered, it said.

According to Hsu Yung-wei, director of the hospital’s International Medical Service Centre, most of the patients from Kiribati only stayed in Taiwan for treatment for an average of 20 days.

He has never met a patient from Kiribati who has had such a long stay at Mackay in his medical career.

“Our mission is to provide the best medical treatment to all patients so that they can feel that love has no borders,” he said. “The ending of diplomatic relations does not mean the end of our medical service.”

The Mackay hospital had been providing free treatment of patients and training of healthcare personnel from Kiribati since 2006 under a Taiwan Medical Programme.

Through this programme between Taiwan and Kiribati, over 350 people with serious conditions have been referred to Taiwan for surgery, the hospital added.