Healing Patients as a Nation Rebuilds

475x285WeberToday’s Phnom Penh is bursting with people. The population of Cambodia’s capital and largest city is booming, and everyone is in a hurry. Ian Weber, MD, says crossing the street there is similar to playing the 1980s arcade game Frogger: “You stop, you get squished.”

Less than two generations ago, the city was much different as the nation was under attack from within. The ruling Khmer Rouge, which rose to power in Cambodia the 1970s, committed acts of genocide that killed about two million people – one-quarter of the nation’s population at the time.

Leader Pol Pot’s brutal regime came to an end in 1979, leaving most communities decimated. Rebuilding began in the 1980s and growth was robust, with double-digit population rate increases in the capital city through the ‘90s. Today, Phnom Penh has a population of just more than two million, and government leaders expect it to surpass three million in the not-too-distant future.

“This city keeps growing – skyscrapers, infrastructure, street markets where you can pick up absolutely everything, a new airport, more cars,” said Weber, who’s visited twice in the last three years. “It’s like organized chaos.”

And much more than the capital is being rebuilt. On the long list of people the Khmer Rouge considered to be threats to the government were all intellectuals, including physicians. They were specifically targeted by the regime for execution. Only a few dozen physicians remained and survived.

Although it remains one of the poorest nations in Asia, today the Cambodian government is investing in its healthcare infrastructure with the intention of providing its citizens with universal health coverage. Weber is among a group that travels to Cambodia yearly to help train medical students and provide care to the poor who are underserved in a system still getting back on its feet.

“Cambodia is rebuilding an entire nation of physicians,” said Weber. “Meeting these people, guiding young doctors and healing patients, has renewed my belief in the strength of the human spirit. I didn’t know how deeply this experience would affect me.”

For a week this February, Weber traveled to Phnom Penh with his colleagues from Cornerstone Foundation - including Joseph Hsin, MD, and Daniel Ocel, MD, who have been traveling to Cambodia since the early 2000s - to provide hip replacements and other specialized orthopedic care that’s otherwise unavailable or very challenging to access in a nation still healing from its history.

The team saw 75 patients and performed 35 surgeries, a dozen of them hip replacements. There were young soccer players with torn ACLs. A farmer who’d been hit by a stampeding water buffalo. A teenager who’d been thrown out of a window 13 years ago by her stepfather and never treated for her injuries. Weber said by the time he saw her, her hip had “pretty much disintegrated.”

And in the “organized chaos” of modern Phnom Penh, there are traffic accidents seemingly around every corner. Many drivers are on mopeds.

“These are the toughest people; they don’t even take pain meds after surgery. Considering their history, it’s not surprising,” Weber said. “And they’re so endearing and caring and grateful. We keep tabs on them during their recovery and when we return, they come back to see us. We check in on their health and on their lives. It’s been pretty awesome.”

Cornerstone Foundation has been traveling to Cambodia since 2006. At this time, the next mission date has not been set. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, travelers from the US are not permitted into the country. As of the time of this writing, Cambodia has had 130 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 and no deaths.

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