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HomemifeatureTaking Charge of Eye Health in Cambodia

Taking Charge of Eye Health in Cambodia

Cambodia Vision, a small Australian not-for-profit organisation, recently treated the eyes of almost 3,000 underprivileged people in Kratie Province in regional Cambodia. I was fortunate to travel with Cambodia Vision as a volunteer for the six-day program. It was my third visit with the organisation and its impact on me was profound.

I love Cambodia Vision and the people in the organisation have become part of my family. Since 2007, they’ve worked tirelessly to raise funds and expand the services they offer people who still live with the consequences of Pol Pot’s horrendous Khmer Rouge regime.

Having started as an Non-Government Organisation (NGO) focused on cataract surgeries, Cambodia Vision today works to prevent blindness by delivering refractive services, providing reading glasses, sunglasses and hearing aids, administering basic health care services, and training local medical students.

Cambodia Vision’s goal is to be part of the training and delivery of the full scope of comprehensive ophthalmic services.

We did our best to soldier on, realising the numbers of patients coming in for treatment were escalating each day

The Cambodia Vision team consists of ophthalmologists, optometrists, anaesthetists, nurses, general practitioners, pharmacists, optical technicians and support staff.

With no charge to Cambodia Vision, these people give their time and skills to change the future of Cambodia. In doing so, all funds raised from the public go directly to the people in need.

Traveling to Kratie Province

Kratie is an isolated province in the north-east of Cambodia. It is populated by just 330,000 people and is a six-hour journey by bus from Phnom Penh. The journey was long and hard, made more difficult by the flooding which caused potholes and other disruptions along the way. Nevertheless, after enduring the trip and short rest, the team enthusiastically went straight to work setting up a mini-surgery from scratch in the dilapidated Kratie Referral Hospital.

Team members had performed their own surgery:

  • the buildings were sanitised (cleaned);
  • antiseptic was applied (painted);
  • oxygen lines were cleared (nine air-conditioning units installed); and
  • all technological equipment was checked (the electrical system was upgraded to cope with equipment such as: phaco units, microscopes, slit lamps, autoclaves and a sound system – what can I say? My choice of music enhanced the experience).

A Gruelling Journey

Our days began at 6.30am, meeting for breakfast before setting off to the hospital. Every volunteer was assigned a task/tasks for the day to keep the clinic running, and we took breaks by turn. On the first day 380 people were registered to receive our services. On some days we saw patients until 10.30 in the evening.

The season saw temperatures soar after sunrise and the humidity sat at a very challenging level. These gruelling conditions, combined with low standards of hygiene and long working hours, took their toll. Our numbers diminished day-by-day as members of our team were slowly struck down with cold, flu and gastroenteritis. Volunteer Russell Zahn coined a turn of phrase after conveying his own experience: “one could never be sure if you were committed to a slash or splash”. A volunteer was sent to hospital in Phnom Penh and another was evacuated to hospital in Australia. A number had to leave for Australia early. We did our best to soldier on, realising the numbers of patients coming in for treatment were escalating each day – and let’s face it, our inconvenience was no comparison to the everyday experience of the people we were there to help.

Despite our reduced numbers, by the end of our sixth day at Kratie Referral Hospital, we had treated 2,916 men, women and children. They’d come from 17 provinces across the country, some having borrowed money from friends and family to make the trip. Many waited days to be treated; not too different to the public hospital system in Australia really!

Along with 433 cataract surgeries, the distribution of 247 pairs of prescripted glasses, 1,703 reading glasses, 2,000 sunglasses and 250 hearing aids our team treated:

  • A woman who had delivered her fifth baby by Caesarean section. The baby weighed 6kg on birth, and once the anaesthetic had worn off, understandably, the woman was in significant pain.
  • A seven-year-old girl who fell from a mango tree – the girl’s brother had fallen on top of her, rupturing her spleen. She had been operated on twice but was not responding to treatment by local doctors. Thank you Dr. Tung Bui for taking her into your care.
  • A middle-aged gentleman with severely infected boils on his face.
  • A woman who was dealing with the blood disease thalassemia – Cambodia Vision was able to provide her with two bags of blood for her treatment.
  • Blood transfusion was also administered to an 81-year-old with severe malnutrition before removing her cataracts. The woman’s four children had abandoned her to live and beg on the streets.

In all cases, the patients were well and happy by the time our team left the hospital and, thanks to the skills of our medical staff, the extra resources we were able to administer.

A Lasting Impression

On journeys of this kind there are often ‘good news stories’ – those that leave lasting and heart-warming impressions. Ours occurred on the second-to-last day at the Kratie Referral Hospital. A woman walked in with her 100-year-old mother. Patient registrations had closed. The pair would be turned away…

The woman persisted. Her mother had been on a hunger strike. Her daughter had been unable to bring her to the hospital for treatment earlier. They were devastated. Their situation bleak. Their opportunity for treatment seemingly lost.

A quick discussion from support staff and our team, and a decision was made.We were in a position to make one last exception…Later, immense joy and many tearswhen the eye patch came off. Theoutcome from this operation was far greater for the woman’s daughter and family, friends and the community thanany of us had anticipated.

Changing Lives

That elderly lady was just one of 2,916 lives that our team of 50 from Cambodia Vision was able to change during our six-day visit to Kratie. But it wasn’t just those lives that have been changed for the better. Now, with improved vision, the people we saw will be able to work, live more independently, and free their carers to pursue other income producing work that will improve their quality of life.

Our team returned to Australia physically and mentally exhausted. Our situations contrasted: all were happy to have offered our services and witnessed the enormous difference that a small group of people have on the lives of Cambodians; most were exhausted and ill; and some, myself included, experienced turmoil and conflict about the fluke of our existence and that of those around us. It only gives me more passion and determination to ensure other people know about this important and life changing organisation.

Support Cambodia Vision

For more information about Cambodia Vision, please visit cambodiavision.org.au and ‘like’ our Face Book page cambodiavisioninc. We need donations. Money. Your money will never be wasted.

Help me and the team at Cambodia Vision, give the sight to one person. Feel the ripple: a grandmother can see her grandchild; a mother can leave the home and work; a child gets an education. Give money now: cambodiavision.org.au

Will Robertson is a diagnostic specialist with Designs for Vision. His knowledge of Cambodia Vision came about in 2010 when Susan Ang made him aware of the organisation. Since 2011 Mr. Robertson has travelled with the team as an optical dispenser and entertainer. Mr. Robertson has been instrumental in inspiring people to help raise money for Cambodia Vision including the 2013 Jog Out Of Fog, where a childhood friend, Damian King, jogged from Brisbane to Sydney raising $60,000. Designs for Vision supports Mr. Robertson’s commitment with Cambodia Vision.

Making the Difference in Cambodia

Cambodia Vision achieved the following outcomes:

  • 433 surgeries for cataract (including two HIV-positive patients and one person with malaria)
  • 247 glasses provided
  • 1,703 reading glasses distributed
  • 2,000 sunglasses handed out
  • 250 hearing aids provided
  • Boxes of children’s toys given out
  • 20 hospital beds donated to Kratie and Sihanouk Hospital Centre of Hope
  • 28 medical students from Phnom Penh and Kratie trained
  • General medication provided to Kratie Referral Hospital
  • Almost three pallets of vitamins and supplements handed out to patients (no one left the hospital empty handed).