By Nurina Asri
National Disaster spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho has been working day and night since an earthquake and tsunami devastated the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
But behind the scenes, the father of two has been facing a life-threatening battle of his own: stage four lung cancer.
- Sutopo Purwo Nugroho was diagnosed with stage four cancer in January
- The cancer has spread to the bones in his back
- But he still holds daily press briefings on Sulawesi relief efforts
Despite dealing with exhaustion and a vigorous treatment regime, the 49-year-old has remained in charge and continued to cater for thousands of journalists every day as the death toll passes 1,400.
“We’ve just got the newest information from our staff in the field,” Mr Nugroho said as he wiped sweat from his brow during his daily briefing on Tuesday.
“At 1:00pm today, the death toll reached 1,234 casualties … all of them come from Palu, Donggala, Sigi, and Parigi Mountong.”
To keep journalists up-to-date, the spokesman of Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) compiles casualty figures, analyses satellite images, and coordinates with authorities — all with composure while he struggled with his health.
“I tend to be easily exhausted since the cancer hit,” he told the ABC after the press briefing.
“In between explanations, I sometimes need to sit and breathe.”
Mr Nugroho, known among journalists by his nickname, Pak Topo, said the long hours that often stretched late into the night were becoming increasingly difficult.
“It’s now impossible for me to go to the field due to my treatment. But I can update and communicate with the team from Jakarta,” he said.
“I know I need to have proper rest, but what can I say? This cancer makes it harder to sleep, and during this disaster I can use those [night] hours to update everything.”
‘I think this is part of my life journey’
Mr Nugroho said he was “shocked” when he was first diagnosed with cancer in January this year.
“I think this is part of my life journey. I have accepted it, I accepted my cancer,” the public servant said.
Rather than taking time off to heal, Mr Nugroho finds solace in his work.
“I love this job. I feel energised whenever I deliver the information,” he told the ABC.
“I feel a shower of adrenaline when I do my job. People still need me.”
Mr Nugroho joined BNPB in 2010 after working for the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology as a researcher in Hydrology and Land Conservation for more than 10 years.
He holds a Bachelor of Geography and is finishing a doctoral degree in Natural Resources and Environment Management from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture in Indonesia.
“As a front-man, I need to be well-equipped,” he said.
“I can’t convey data without knowing it 100 per cent. Fortunately, I have this proficiency in geography and geology.”
After his battle with cancer went public, reporters would frequently ask him to sit down in between briefings. His responses often demonstrated that his humour has remained intact.
“He jokingly said that if he sits, his charm will degrade ‘because the live TV report will highlight his bald head,” said Runi Rompies, a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald.
Ms Rompies believes Mr Nugroho can be a role model for other people battling cancer.
“He is inspirational … still taking on daily work loads while battling stage four cancer and working as usual.”
Having known Mr Nugoroho for eight years, a Japanese NHK journalist, Fransiska Renatta, shared the same opinion, adding that he was not an ordinary communication official.
“He not only picks up our phone calls, he also provides us with details of why the disaster happened,” Ms Renatta said.
“Many of us don’t even know that he is struggling with illness, yet his work ethic is beyond measure.”
Mr Nugroho says the Indonesian community would continue to be his source of motivation. (ABC; Nurina Savitri)
Mr Nugroho told the ABC his cancer had now spread to the bones in his back.
He said without the medicine that he calls “magic”, he could barely survive a single day.
“If I stand in front of the mirror, it’s clear enough that my spine is bending because the cancer in the chest has been expanding,” he said.
“Without this sticky medicine [he shows the ABC a transparent pad attached on his chest], I can’t imagine how I would be.”
Mr Nugroho said he would fight his cancer until the end, adding that the Indonesian community would continue to be his source of motivation.
“I have around 3,000 journalists wanting to connect with me every day, I can’t just give up,” he said.