Life-saving surgery a gift to Maria

14 June 2017

A young woman from Timor Leste is now recovering following life-changing neurosurgery at Epworth Richmond.



Maria is a 26 year old woman, studying at university in East Timor. She comes from a small village, three hours’ drive from Dili, where her family are farmers.  All their income, as with many Timorese families is going towards Maria's university education, which is around $600-$700 per annum.

When Maria started to experience weakness and muscle wasting in both her hands in early 2016, humanitarian medical centre Bairo Pite Clinic, based in Dili, sent out a call for help. There are no facilities in Timor to diagnose or treat Maria, and few resources to support people with disabilities.

Melbourne GP Sue English, who has worked with communities in Timor Leste for the last 15 years, raised the money to fly Maria to Darwin for investigations and assessment. MED radiology, Western Pathology and doctors at Danila Dilba medical centre all donated their resources and time to help.


Tests revealed Maria had Arnold Chiari Malformation at the base of her brain and a resultant extensive cervicothoracic syrinx which expanded and was causing damage and injury to her brainstem and spinal cord. Without surgery, her condition would worsen and she would become progressively more disabled, then quadriplegic.  The condition can be fatal, however, it is reversible with surgery to decompress the narrowing at the base of the skull to release pressure on the brainstem and spinal cord.


Epworth neurosurgeon Mr Patrick Chan and colleagues Dr Greg Matthews, surgical assistant, Dr Daniel Stiglitz, anaesthetist, volunteered to perform Maria’s surgery pro bono, as soon as they were approached by Dr English. Physician Dr Ana Chrysostomou and her medical team also volunteered peri-operative medical care for Maria’s inpatient stay.


Dr English approached Children First Foundation, who are recognised for their social and humanitarian commitment - usually to children up to the age of 20.  In Maria’s case, Children First agreed to provide Maria’s accommodation and pre-and post- surgical care and arranged her medical visa. Epworth Richmond with support from Epworth Medical Foundation agreed to provide the much-needed hospital care.


At the time of pre-operative review in Melbourne, Maria had significant weakness in her hands and was in urgent need of the surgery to prevent further neurological deterioration. She was unable to perform even the most minor tasks, such as peeling a vegetable.​