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Cambodia Medical Relief Mission Web Blog
by My Lac March 18th - April 2nd

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Greetings from Phnom Penh

Just want to let you all know that I am doing well here. It has been hard to get access to Internet. At the same time, we've been very busy with our relief work. We have been to 2 villages of the Cha`m people (minority tribes) and today, we will start to visit the Vietnamese floating villages.

Our daily routine is to get up and have breakfast at 6AM and depart our hotel for the villages by 7AM. The first day, we saw 300 patients and 400 for the second day.  It's amazing how poor these people are. Our visit is like a visit from the Pope. Everyone wanted to have a chance to be seen by the visiting Americans. We worked non-stop and patients came in one after another but yet, every time I looked up, the tropical hot waiting area filled up again!  These people have suffered much and it is sad to see the pain and suffering in the eyes of the elderly. The children and the mommies are something else. No matter where, children will always be children - they are so innocently beautiful beneath all the dirt-covered faces!

I am not sure how long the Motrins, vitamins, and other medications will help them, but I think the most important thing to them is that someone from a land far away cared enough to stop by and take a few moments to ask about their well being. Anyway, I hope that our visit give them some hope even if that hope is momentary...

We worked very hard each day and wanted so much to see many more people but by 4PM, sadly, we had to close registration, pack up, and prepare for our 1-3.5 hour drive back to Phnom Penh.

Today we will see the Vietnamese people in the floating villages about 1 hour from PP. Our hearts are filled with anxiety as these are our own people and they are much poorer than the Cha`ms! And we will be the FIRST medical relief group to see them!

Anyway, hope all's well back there and I will see you all soon!

From My-Lac - March 24, 2:38AM

I can't sleep! I am tired but I would sleep until about 2:30-3 and then I am wide-awake! But then again this is the best time to access the net, as traffic is not so busy so the response time is a little bit faster.

Today, the entire team will have the day off. Many of the members will go sightseeing around PP and a few will go to Angkor Wat as Dr. Nina must leave at the end of the week.

Anyway, let me recount our journey from yesterday to the VNese village. It is called Cu Lao Ket and about 20 minutes from PP. As we were riding toward the village and as the road changed from pavement to a tiny dirt road, I was filled with emotions that I have not experienced before...excitement, nervous anticipation, a little misty eyed at the thought of what I am about to experience. I don't know why but I knew that today would be a very special day as we will be visiting and lending support to our own countrymen and no other medical groups had visited them previously! The leaders were very excited and I thought they were quite organized as they had formed committees to help us with setting up, translation, lunch, and support. Though to us this was another mission day, I sensed that to them, this event was monumental and had deeper significance.

After a short introduction, we started our day and it got busy immediately. Everyone wanted to have a chance to see the doctors and to go inside the room where most of our doctors were situated. It was funny in that anh Thien, the lead doctor, did the triage outside of the room and gave patients their diagnosis. Patients who remained in the outside room thought that they must go INTO a room to see the true doctors! Eventually, anh Chau intervened and explained that if Dr. Thien recommended that they go inside, it meant that they have serious issues and are very sick. This pacified them and they left happily!

We were extremely busy with one patient after another! Dr. Thieu and Nurse Thuy did a couple of major examinations yesterday:

-Dr. Thieu took care of an elderly man with a cancer tumor from his neck the size of his own head!

-Nurse Thuy did a minor procedure and took out a huge mucous infection from the back of a 12-year-old boy.

And there were so many others that I will have to tell you about when I get back. It is just amazing what this team can do in a few short hours.

One of the funniest things happened to me while I was trying to insert a temperature gauge into the mouth of a 10-year-old boy. I asked him to open his mouth wide and all he was able to do was open just a tiny bit. I asked him again and he did the same thing. I was thinking to myself, "Wow, this boy certainly has major issues with his jaw!" I then tried to look closer to see if anything unusual was in his mouth and then I saw a huge cotton ball stuffed in there! It turns out that he had just gotten his tooth pulled by the Dental team and they had told him to keep his mouth closed for 20 minutes! I couldn't help but laugh and was relieved that the boy was ok! :-)

Anyway, we ended up seeing 475 patients today! We tried to push hard to get as many people in as we possibly could, but sadly have to close shop and leave... We left with promises to return one day in the future...I hope we will be able to make that day happen as these people do not have much to live for and something like today provided much hope for them.

For me, it was a very emotional day - I guess maybe because I was able to speak VNese and related more to the people...our own people. This day moved me to the core...

Anyway, I must run...will catch up later...

Saturday, March 26 - La`ng Van Lich

Again, we left PP early in the morning as the sun was rising over the Tonle Sap River. We drove southward of the city. At the time of the morning, Phnom Phenhians were just waking up to start their day. And though it was still quite early, the streets were starting to get crowded already. Here, the only real traffic law is that you must remain your course and push through the crowds; otherwise, you will get trampled over and will never get past all the other cars and motorbikes! As we left the crowd and noise of PP behind, we turned into a very small alley where we continued until we got to our destination, lang Van Lich.

As we got nearer, I started to hear familiar sounds - our mother tongue and somewhere in the background, someone was playing ca?i lu+o+ng - a form of VNese folk opera! The village leaders as well as our helpers were all waiting and eagerly helped us unload our boxes. Once again, we turned 2 small schoolrooms into areas for medical, dental, and pharmaceutical services. We were set up and ready to go within 45 minutes.

Patients had already lined up and they were all anxious to have the chance to see the doctors. These people have suffered much and I can see it in their faces. There were 25-year-olds who looked 45 and 15-year-olds who looked 30! Mothers came in holding and pulling 4-6 children at a time. Many of them were malnourished and were much smaller than children of their typical age group. The Pharmacy Team of Phuong and Ai Chan dispensed many vitamins that day.

We had a touching case today; a boy of about 11 came in with marks all over his upper body and a huge super infection (infection from another infection), which covered much of his left thigh. I have never seen anything so ugly and can't imagine living with something like this. After exams and consulting with a couple of other doctors, Dr. Bonnie Cohen cleaned up the area and gave the mother lots of antibiotics to ease the infection. She also kept the record and will be referring the boy to a local hospital for future care. I think a few of us could not help but be moved to tears as we witnessed how courageous this boy was when Nurse Thuy gave him an antibiotic. His hands gripped the bed tightly as he tried to hold back his tears while he was being poked with a needle. Of course, me being me, when all was done, I pushed a handful of candies into his hands, which brought out a huge smile across his face! Speaking of smiles, of all the villages we have been to, I would have to say this village has the most unique names and there are some names that really stood out: Ca^.u Cu, Nguyen Van Cu, Chuo^.t Nhu+'c Ra(ng [Mouse Achy Tooth], Ba?y Chu' Lu`n [Seven Dwarfs]! Really! These are real names! ;)

Sunday - March 27 - La`ng Ho^' Gai

Today, we visited lang Ho^' Gai village. Upon arrival, we had to get into the village by walking across a wooden bridge that was made of 2 flimsy planks of wood! For once, I was so glad that I didn't have to carry anything heavy, as I would have fallen off the bridge. The place where we set up was again a school room but this was the poorest one for it was more like a shed and required much clean up. I was so impressed to see that everyone got down and dirty to prepare the shed into our doctors' office. I was so moved when I saw Dr. Doanh roll up her pant legs to mid-calf as she started to sweep the floor alongside a local woman! And she did it with such grace! ;) She is definitely the "People's Doctor" for the previous day, she did not hesitate dig into the hair of one of her patients in search of lice as the patient was complaining about an itchy head!!

Nurse Thuy came to our rescue again when one of our patients collapsed and needed an IV. She effectively set up a makeshift holder for the IV bottle and quickly treated the patient to consciousness. This was another case where the patient had a history of high blood pressure and heart condition so Dr. Thieu had to refer this case to the local hospital for further treatments.

From the Dental Team , Dr. Ngoc joined us after a week of service with Operation Smile. He is something else too. In the previous days, we were able to borrow the mobile dental chairs from the local dentist, Dr. Monica. However, she needed them back, so how did our Dr. Ngoc get the necessary dental chairs? By adeptly propping one leg up on a chair and having patients tilt their head back against his thigh, using it as a headrest! Now THAT was true improvisation! It was amazing to watch how the team dealt with challenges and found creative ways to resolve them!

As for me, the one memory that will forever resonate in my mind will always be the children of this village...

They LOVED to hang around us as I guess, in a way; we are so different from what they normally see. I turned on the video cam and flipped the screen out so they can see themselves as I videotaped them. They were so in awe of this technology and kept saying to each other "Tao ne`, tao ne`," "Ma`y ne`" [There's me! There's you!]... They have some of the most genuinely beautiful faces I have ever seen and in my heart, I wish I could do more for them - give them more happy moments! When we left, they followed us to our van and refused to let us go. They kept on asking "Khi nao co se tro lai, khi nao co se tro lai?" [When will you return?] I was sad for I didn't have an immediate answer to give them and was only able to offer a smile and many big, warm hugs...

Needless to say, our lives will be forever changed by these images of hope...

Sa Ang Village - March 28, 2:17AM

Hi TH - Well, believe it or not, we did it! Yesterday was the last day of our mission. The journey has come to an end or is it just the beginning of another journey? Many thoughts crossed my mind as I am sitting here recounting our last day of service...

The day started out just like the previous days with the team packaging up the boxes of medical equipments and supplies into 3 vans. Our caravan consisted of 3 vans and a couple of cars/SUVs. It was very difficult to maneuver the traffic in PP but our skillful drivers somehow managed to stay together... The ride was about 45 minutes from PP and the road was less bumpy than the previous 2 days where we encountered extremely bumpy roads and a series big potholes. The Cambodian countryside was as pretty as what you would read in travel books, filled with rice paddies, mango groves, coconut trees, cows standing eating grass or water buffaloes lazily lying in ponds of muddy water. In addition, along the roadside, there were many water lily ponds with long stems and beautiful pink flowers arching and blooming gracefully in the sun. As my mind indulged in the tranquility of the elements around me, our van suddenly shook as it made a quick left turn onto a dirt trail, and I was brought back to reality and the task at hand.

The village's name is Sa Ang and was one of the poorer floating villages in the area. Our setup was in the main hall of the community church and a couple of side rooms. Again, the local leaders and community greeted us and provided assistance right away. In no time at all we were set up and ready to accept patients. As in other villages, people of all ages streamed in continuously all morning for the chance to see our doctors.

People with minor problems such as headaches and dizziness to major problems such as cancers, TB, super infections came in non-stop. Again, there were many children as young as 19 days and up. Without our Pediatrician, Dr. Hanh, I don't know how we would have been able to take care of all these children. She was so gentle and had such a healing hand when checking the children for problems. She lost her voice for the last couple of days but this did not deter from her work!

We had a serious case where a 14-year-old boy came in with a humongous fish bite! It was about the size of a golf ball (I reference this as I do miss my golf game! :-) ) and as deep as half of the golf ball. After examining, Nurse Thuy performed a fantastic irrigation job and bandaged the boy up while sending his mom to the pharmacy for some additional antibiotics.

Our resilient and dedicated Dr. Thieu handled many difficult cases. A woman with something looking like a form of pus/fluid bunched together, hanging from her mouth, looked to be in great pain. The doctor suspected that it might have been an infection from some form of fungi and/or cancer (I can't seem to recall the technical term for this). Again, if we were in the US, this patient would have been sent directly to the hospital. Here however, we were only able to clean the infected area and give out antibiotics. As with this case and other serious cases before, I can sense the frustration from our doctors in that they all wish that more could be done for their patients. I feel for them completely but hope that they will remember that just by being there, they are, in a way, a form of medicine for these patients.

A classic comic moment came as I stood near the area where Dr. Cuong was working. He was examining a young lady and said something to the effect of, "Be^.nh na`y kho^ng chu+~a ddu+o+.c," [this problem cannot be cured or healed] but somehow the young lady only heard the word " Chu+?a," [pregnant] and her eyes popped out. Horrified, she exclaimed, "Em khong co' chu+?a! Em chu+a cho^`ng ne^n kho^ng co' chu+?a ddu+o+c!!!!" [I can't be pregnant! I am not married and it's not possible that I am pregnant!] Oh my gosh! I happened to glance at Dr. Cuong and we both couldn't help smiling (wish I could have laughed as loud as I wanted too!!!) Is this what one calls, "Lost in translation?" :-)

On the Dental side, our doctors were busily extracting decayed and broken teeth from their patients using makeshift dental chairs. My fondest memory of this day involved an incident with co^ Trang, aka the Dental Nurse, assistant, comforter to patients, and much much more. Every day during lunch break, she would gather a group of young patients and teach them how to take care of their teeth. She showed them how to brush their teeth by placing the brush at a 45 degree angle against the gums, using back and forth motions to clean the outside of the teeth, following with up and down motions to clean the inside. And if toothpaste is not available, she instructed them to use salt in its place. She would then ask everyone to follow her example by practicing the motions and then concluded by handing out toothbrushes. A little later, as a bunch of us took a quick walk through the village, we were so surprised to behold the sight before us: In a shed, a teenager was demonstrating to a younger group of kids the exact same motions of brushing teeth that co^ Trang had taught him earlier! What could be more rewarding than this confirmation of lessons learned?!?

This last day was very hot and very hard on the team as we were using up our last ounce of energy! The afternoon brought us more patients and we were completely booked till the end. As the sun went down, we had to close the registration and shut down. More people came and asked us to give them one more chance but regretfully, we had to turn them away.

Our ride back was fairly quiet. I guess we all had much to reflect upon, on what we had or had not accomplished in the past few days. Yes, there is much that we can still do, but a small ripple in the pond is still a ripple that hopefully will result in more ripples.

Earlier in the day, someone mentioned a conversation he had with the children of this village. He recalled asking a little girl what she would like to be when she grows up? She responded, "A balut seller," (ba'n ho^.t vi.t lo^.n - fresh duck egg). He then asked why she would limit herself so? Why not aspire for more? Perhaps an engineer, lawyer, or doctor? Puzzled, she asked, "What is a doctor?" She had never been seen by a doctor and did not know what being a doctor meant! As she was one of our patients, I hope that her encounter with our team will open up her eyes to a new realm of possibilities where her dreams and aspirations, as well as those of other village children, will lead her to reach further, beyond just being a balut seller. Keep reaching kiddo, for dreams DO come true! There is...Hope for Tomorrow...

"Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high,

And the dreams that you dare to,

Oh why, Oh why can't I?

Where trouble melts like lemon drops, and

Dreams really do come true...

Ooo, ooo ooo..."

Mylac - signing off from Phnom Penh!

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