Healing Hands in the Cambodian Jungle

Posted on by Gabrielle Yetter


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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”.

Gabrielle Yetter

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14 Responses to Healing Hands in the Cambodian Jungle

  1. Peter Hogan says:

    Wonderful article, and the saddest thing – even sadder than incompetent local healers and young women paralyzed for life through brainless driving – is that I’m sure every cent of funding for this remarkable place has and will come from out of Cambodia.

    Billions of investment money is pouring into this country now and the rural poor won’t even get the crumbs from the table. And as for the Khmer Riche forgetting about their Range Rovers and pug ugly reflective glass mansions for a second and throwing a little change into the ‘Poor Patient’s Fund’, well forget it; the only time they give a thought to the rural poor is when they steal their land and send the cops over to give them a kicking.

    As usual, it’s left to the likes of Peter Li and his foreign volunteers to provide care and comfort to the poorest of the poor. What a sad indictment of Khmer society.

    • Peter Li says:

      During the construction of GHC, price of construction materials went to the roof and we had to postpone our construction for nearly a year! There was an old lady living at the Pagoda. She was poor and she visited us several time for basic medical follow-ups, she literally spent her life saving to give us a 50kg bag of cement! There are patients who cant afford to pay, but the give us bananas, pineapples, jack-fruits, basically what they have as payment and we used all of these for other patients and our staff!

      We even had a family who owe us several hundred dollars, he couldn’t pay us so he gave us one of his cow. Right now, after three years we have five healthy cows at GHC! Most of the time, the rich and those who can afford does not pay for service, but the poor, they will try their best to give us something in return.

      I share Mr. Hogan sentiment, but people will help us when they see us tirelessly working alongside without judgement and criticism. “We do the thing we do , that others may live.”

    • Peter Li says:

      It is a very difficult situation when an accident happened in the middle of nowhere. The people in the surrounding area had good intention to help, but there are many short coming. I have been working along side Cambodian for nearly 20 years and I have seen progress being made from “zero” to something a little better than zero. I keep reminding myself that whatever we do, we must build a system that all can function.

      Yes, the majority of the funding for GHC is from outside of Cambodia. But when we consider the total value for the construction of GHC on relative income value for Cambodians and foreigners (Taiwan, Japan where the majority of our funds come from) the Cambodia side contributed the resources necessary to complete the construction. GHC is currently operated by ALL Cambodian staff with myself having a hand off supervision.

      I share with you two cases:
      A nun living at the nearby temple is our regular patient. She does not have money nor much resources, but she was able to give us a bag of cement. During this period, the price of one 50kg bag of cement was around 15 USD. For this nun it is a significant contribution!

      We have a family who is living on the verge of starvation, whatever fruits and vegetables they have own for sale at the market, they would share it with us. It is not a one off thing.They regularly gave us fruits and vegetables in exchange for treatment even though we didnt ask them for it.

      We have a guy who borrowed money from us to rebuild his house and start is cafe on wheel business, unfortunately he had an accident and had to use the money to get surgery. He was not able to pay, so he gave us a cow. As of today, from that one cow we have five!

      Many of us feel a sense of superiority and we tend to dictate what is right and wrong to the Cambodian without consideration for the local context. Specific example: I was in ICU at a national hospital to visit a patient and I notice that all of the oxygen humidifier has no water! I asked the reason and I was explained that the French doctor told them not to do this… and I asked why? NO one was able to give a good explanation. Finally I get the correct information from the head of ICU to the reason. The french team were worry about contamination of the water and causing secondary infection. All is valid. But not having water in the humidifier cause more harm to the patient than the secondary infection. All Cambodian have developed immunity for this eventuality, even in weak conditions. Also the ICU is NOT STERILE! In our act of sense of superiority, we messed up and we dont owe up to that mistake! How many Cambodian were harm because of this?

      “As usual, it’s left to the likes of Peter Li and his foreign volunteers to provide care and comfort to the poorest of the poor. What a sad indictment of Khmer society.”

      This is not the case at all,we have countless of Cambodians volunteering their time to keep the emergency system running 24/7.

      If I can challenge the reader of this forum to spend a little time to see what the team are doing with the 119 Emergency System and help contribute their time as volunteer to make the system better. GHC is a small part of thi s119 System and we all work tirelessly to keep it running with limited and sometimes improvise resources!

      I want to clarify that all of our international staff are NON-PAID! All of our funds goes into paying local staff salary, when we have extra funds, purchasing of equipments.

  2. andy says:

    Fascinating. I mostly concur with Peter – certainly the Ministry of Health is one of the most corrupt, but she does refer to donations by Rotary Clubs in Cambodia. I hope the forum posters who condemn EVERY NGO in Cambodia read this.

    • Peter Li says:

      We don’t need to look far at corruption in society, it is just that in America or other developed countries, the system of corruption is formalized and sophisticated.

      Cambodia is raw in every aspect of life and living. We see kids learn to bribe their teachers from the get-go, having to buy teaching materials and extra lessons in order to pass and move on to the next grade.

      People (the normal and non-powerful) here do things not because they enjoy being corrupted, but it is a necessity. I am often told by Cambodian about the story of two cops. One takes money in every which way he can and the other is honest and does his work diligently. The money taking cop always come home to a happy family, with enough food on the table and a happy wife which lead to a happy husband ;-). While the non-money taking cop… *you can fill out your own scenarios here*

      Everywhere we see corruptions, but what is important is that are we contribution to is and play a part in it as well?

  3. Robert says:

    Please note that THE ROTARY CLUB is not an NGO. Many Thanks

  4. Peter Gray says:

    If anyone wants to help the GHC this can be done via the Rotary club of Phnom Penh. Your donation will definitely be forwarded to the GHC … in it’s entirety and a receipt provided.
    Contact: club treasurer, Jenny Ng at jenny@blackcocoon.com
    or, club president Peter Gray, at pgray101@gmail.com

  5. Rachel says:

    those Cambodia’s poor people is lucky, becuase they have healing centre.

  6. Anon says:

    Why don’t you take Paypal payments for donations? That would make it a LOT easier for outsiders to make a payment?

    OR use kickstarter to raise the money for a few specific needs?

  7. Peter Li says:

    It would be nice to accept PayPal donation. We can only send payment from Cambodia, not yet receive payment. If you would like to make donation, you are most welcome to make payment via Side By Side International in Japan via the Family Care Foundation:

    https://www.familycare.org/donate-to-family-care/?P09.

    Please specify that you are donating this for GHC.

    We have used http://www.indiegogo.com/ghcfund and successfully raised money for our poor patient fund! It seems that we raised alot, but with just a few surgical procedures, the amount we raised is used up. It is a constant and uphill battle to balance the meet for proper and appropriate medical with efficiency and dollars, the lack there off!

    If you or your friends would be interested in volunteering your time, this is very much acceptable. We needs many skillful people, not necessarily medical. Anyone is welcome. All you need is an open mind and respect for the local people’s way of doing things and leave your prejudice and excess baggage of issues at home. People we serve have suffered enough and they definitely do not need a hero or a know it all, just someone who can be supportive and help care for them in their time of desperate needs without judgement and prejudice (a very hard thing to do here, we all seems to know best for Cambodians, except the Cambodians ;-))

    Thanks for your comment and suggestion.

    -Peter

  8. Pingback: Graphis Health Center is in the News! | cdepcambodia

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  10. Jacksun Lee says:

    Please can you call Jacksun on 070826723. he has been trying to get hold of you but your phone someone answers

  11. Jacksun Lee says:

    Please can you get Peter Li to call Jacksun on 070826723. he has been trying to get hold of you but your phone someone answers

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