Each morning as we arrived at the clinic, a large group of patients would already be waiting patiently in the smoldering heat. Many of them traveled long distances to see us, with some of them having never even seen a physician before. Despite waiting many hours without food or water in the unforgiving heat and humidity, each of them greeted my medical student and me with such a tender and gracious smile. The appreciation they had was deeply moving.
The experience was extremely rewarding. There was an obvious need for medical and dental help in the community, and many volunteers responded to address this need. Mission personnel came from all different professions: doctors, dentists, nurses, students, technicians, administrators, and even non-medical volunteers. Each came with a willingness to just donate their time and energy for the betterment of those in need. Doctors gave their time to help across multiple disciplines: urgent/emergent care, family practice, pediatrics, and internal medicine. Both the medical students and the community were empowered. Under the guidance of nurses, some students learned the importance of triaging patients to prioritize the most pressing medical need. Under the mentorship of doctors and physician assistants, other students learned to care for a patient’s ailments, whether the itchiness of scabies or the pain of a trauma. Dental professionals gave away toothbrushes and toothpaste, educating both young and old on the importance of oral hygiene. It was touching to see the gratefulness in each patients’ eyes. It was encouraging to see our medical/dental specialists training future care givers so that they too may provide quality health care.Outside of the clinic, Cambodia was a culture shock. There were so many sites. We got a peek into Cambodian history. The grandeur of so many temples in Angkor Wat was amazing. The pain of the Khmer Rouge was shocking. The shopping in the Phnom Penh Russian markets was enjoyable. There were so many people and so many places nothing like back home. It was eye-opening to see the multitude of children marketing drinks, foods, bracelets, or books. Street shops were everywhere. I’ve never seen a motorbike used like in Cambodia. It was everywhere and used by everyone. The food was diverse: Mexican, French, American, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Khmer – a melting pot within walking distance. A wonderful camaraderie was developed among all. We left not just as volunteers, but as lifelong friends. The experience was one of the most rewarding of my life.
I’m going to let you in a little secret: The human soul is resilient. It triumphs over war, poverty, and hunger. How do I know this? I went to Cambodia hoping to make a difference instead I came back home—humbled. Our first agenda was a trip to a trash site where children and adults scavenge for food and recyclable materials day in and day out. I expected a hungry mob instead we were greeted with smiling faces and “akuns” all around. I would have never expected to find happiness in a trash site but there it was residing in every child’s heart and twinkled in every adult’s eyes. As I stood under the vast Cambodian blue sky I realized that the only reason I was the one handing out food and toys was sheer luck. It was sheer luck that I was born into a family where I had opportunities. The opportunity to have 3 meals a day, clothes on my back, and a roof over my head. I was lucky to be given the opportunity to take care of children who had no access to medical care. The children we treated were obviously malnourished with poor hygiene. Nothing could have prepared me from the poverty I’ve witnessed. There were children walking around with no shoes and no underwear. Dental caries left to destroy precious little teeth, medical conditions left untreated, and surgical problems remain unresolved due to inability to pay. Every single person in our medical mission team worked hard to provide the best care for every patient who walked for hours to get to our clinic site and for every patient who waited for his/her number to be called with an empty stomach.If you are reading this in the comfort of your own home as you savor the last meal of your day. Please remember you were given the gift of the two most important things in life: time and money. Time being the more valuable of the two because the time you spend helping others in need is priceless.