Healing Hands in the Cambodian JungleAugust 10, 2012
Sai Ya will never walk again.
The 26-year-old’s spinal cord was permanently damaged when she was pulled from the wreckage of a car last August and she now lies, paralysed from the waist down, at the Graphis Health Centre, with a newborn baby and no means to care for herself.
In the next bed, Chanthouern may never go home. He was admitted to GHC earlier this year after swallowing poison but the staff suspects he was poisoned by a family member so they’re reluctant to send the fearful young man back to the scene of the crime.
Across the room, sitting on a hospital cot, Ngy is being urged by a doctor to stay overnight so he can get the proper treatment for his thumb, which was severed when his pig tried to escape from the rope tangled around his hand. In his village, the local healer treated him by spitting on it and it’s now badly infected.
At GHC, doctors and nurses need to be more than doctors and nurses. They take on the roles of detectives, psychotherapists and cultural experts for their patients, who emerge from the jungle with a never-ending stream of tales and tragedies. And they never know what might be coming through their doors.
Planted in the heart of the tropical forest, surrounded by lush mountain ranges where elephants ramble and plantations of mango, passion fruit and durian flourish, the Graphis Health Centre is one of a kind.
Located at the end of a five kilometer dirt road in Sihanoukville province, this sparking modern facility is as out of place as a nativity scene in a pagoda. It’s equipped with top-of-the-line medical equipment, acts as the only health facility for miles around and opens its doors and heart to anyone in need, most of whom are penniless.
The environmentally friendly and energy efficient building is a brilliant white haven surrounded by 100 acres of forest and mountains, outfitted with water channels and a slanted roof for cooling and solar panels for electricity. There are five in-patient beds, two pediatric beds and four emergency beds, with an average of 30 out-patients and 18 in-patients treated every week (with two bumper weeks last year bringing 150 people every day for check-ups).
Since they opened two years ago, they have treated more than 4,000 patients, some of whom found their way here from other parts of the country as their last resort for medical help.
It was built through the inspiration of Dr. Peter Li, a Japanese American who has lived in Cambodia on and off since 1993 and was driven to provide a heath facility for impoverished people. He obtained funding from the humanitarian NGO, Side By Side International, that specialises in providing emergency response services in Cambodia, and he now works as their Country Director, overseeing emergency medical services throughout the country.
Before the clinic opened, Dr. Li’s team worked from a small hut, mostly treating malaria cases and minor infections. Today, a considerable percentage of patients are admitted as a result of poisoning and road accidents.
“Out in the field, most farm workers mix chemicals to use for agricultural reasons,” said Dr. Li. “They don’t wear gloves and often absorb poison through their skin. There are also many cases where villagers poison themselves by eating bad mushrooms or other produce growing in the field.
“We also see plenty of people who have smashed themselves up on motos or get into car crashes on the highways. In the Phnom Penh area alone, there are between 20 and 25 road accidents every day.”
While GHC has been open only two years, the rural clinic operates at a level that would be the envy of many city hospitals.
Equipment and services were donated by Rotary Clubs in Japan and Cambodia to get the facility off the ground and it now possesses one of the country’s most sophisticated ultrasound scans in addition to full body splints for accident victims, a CBC machine which does blood analysis in 30 seconds and a generator which makes oxygen. Next month they are receiving a digital x-ray machine and there’s a steady stream of medical volunteers from Japan, the U.S., and Taiwan who offer their services at the clinic.
Inside the state-of-the-art Italian medical cabinets donated by Rotary Clubs are more supplies than in most health centres in Cambodia, according to Dr. Li, and the fulltime doctor, Dr. Rany Heng, and her three nurses are on the premises around the clock caring for patients who are intrepid enough to venture into the centre.
“Many people from the village are afraid of us,” said Dr. Li. “Some think there are ghosts inside or they won’t admit they’re sick enough for a hospital. And some of them get bored as we won’t let them smoke or drink alcohol”.
And almost every patient has a story.
There’s the young man who cut his throat on a woodcutting tool because he wanted to spite his mother for not giving him money. And the six-year-old girl with anaerobic bacterial infections on her legs from playing in dirty water. There are babies with dengue, elderly women with burns from paraffin lamps and accident victims torn from the wreckage of their vehicles.
However, while many find their way to GHC as their “last hope” because other hospitals can’t treat them, there are others who receive fundamental health skills from the doctors and nurses who visit the neighbouring villages every day, teaching kids about brushing their teeth, taking vitamins and basic hygiene.
“The outreach programme was my favourite part,” said Jun Nakagawa, a volunteer who worked at GHC for three months this year. “The children showed up all showered and clean, brushing their teeth together and eager to rack up points by taking their vitamin pills. It made me really see the value of working on health issues at a grassroots level”.
While donors have donated equipment and services, the stream of medical needs never ends and GHC recently launched their first poor patient fund for people who need further treatment or can’t afford the $1.25 consultation fee.
“We need help for people who can’t help themselves,” said Dr. Li. “We also need portable ventilators and external defibrillators, medical volunteers and people with engineering experience and IT skills. We need dentists to see people once a month and funds to buy a HEPA filter so we can start doing surgery. Basically, we need everything you can think of to make a health centre function.
But, most of all, I want to see people taking care of one another first. That is what I hope to bring about with GHC”.