Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Bandages and Chalkboards

I am neither a nurse nor a teacher, but yesterday I was both for a little while…and I think I did a pretty decent job, or at least I hope so. 
Yesterday we accompanied Dr. Hahn out to Savong’s School and Orphanage to take a look at the complex and offer our services.  Gordon and I sat in on the medical clinic with Dr. Hahn and observed for part of the morning.  The clinic is located on the grounds of the orphanage, and and is open 4 days a week, offering free health care to anyone who can get there.  The attending doctor is a young Khmer woman who has recently graduated from med school in Phnom Penh.  She has an assistant, a lay-person trained in taking temperatures, height & weight, etc, and they have their hands full, seeing about 25 patients a day.  Considering the local conditions, the clinic is fairly well equipped with basic supplies, including a smattering of pharmaceuticals and first-aid supplies.  They were very grateful to receive the bacitracin ointment, vitamins and other supplies that we brought with us.

Dr. Hahn

The Clinic Doctor Examining Patients
The first four or five patients were young children with fever, cough and sniffles.  Yes, the common cold is prevalent even in Cambodia.  When the adult patients came in, Gordon and I decided to step outside to allow them some privacy and dignity, and we took the opportunity to take a look around the orphanage.

The orphanage consists of two main buildings.  One building is made up of the medical clinic and dormitories, and the second houses a kitchen, classroom and sewing room.   Several kids of all ages swarmed us, anxious to practice their English which is surprisingly good.  We were bombarded with a battery of questions, ranging from “Where do you live?” to “How old are you?” (which is a sensitive issue for me since I’m turning 60 this year and 60 must seem ancient to these kids!)  Another group of children were sitting on the floor of the kitchen engrossed in playing UNO with two volunteers, John (from England) and Michelle (from Holland).  The kids were winning, hands down. 

We walked past the sewing room, equipped with several electric machines which have been converted to treadle power, since electricity is not a luxury they have.  A few women were just finishing work on some garments, and I’d have loved to talk to them, but because of our language barrier we just nodded and smiled a lot.  I really need to find out more about this sewing group.  Perhaps there is some work I can do here, maybe teach an embroidery class like I did last year.  Who knows?

Gordon was interested to see the fish farm located behind the kitchen/classroom complex, where they have been experimenting with raising tilapia as a food source for the orphanage.  The size of the operation is impressive – two large ponds, the most recent one having been hand dug by a contingent of a dozen Japanese students who came to volunteer and slugged it out in the hot Cambodian sun for a week.   That’s dedication.  The water in both ponds seemed low and murky to me, but hey, I’m no expert.  Gordon is the one whose interests and knowledge are in this area.  He has a friend and former colleague, currently living in Phnom Penh, who specializes in aquaculture, and might be able to offer some useful suggestions for development and sustainability in this very worthy project.

While we were being interrogated and scrutinized by the young residents, I noticed one of the older boys was covered in huge scrapes.  His face especially was a mess, the upper lip gashed, badly swollen and festering.  I couldn’t help but ask what had happened, although I’d already had a pretty good idea he’d been in an accident on a moto (motorcycle), which are quite common.  He confirmed my suspicions, saying it had happened late Friday night, but neglected to mention he’d been drinking.  He had not been seen by a doctor nor had his wounds been bandaged or cleaned.   When the clinic doctor went for lunch, I assisted while Dr. Hahn worked on his wounds for over an hour.  I could tell he was in agony, but remained stoic, still and quiet, the only sign of pain being an occasional tear that escaped the corner of one eye.  When we were done, he thanked us profusely, and insisted on going to school, but Dr. Hahn told him to rest quietly.  I’m anxious to return today to see how he’s doing.
Gordon & I left Hahn to spend the afternoon at the clinic while we went to visit the School.  It’s an impressive complex, complete with a well stocked library.  Besides regular curriculum, the children learn English and Japanese and computer skills.  English classes are held in the evening for students who attend government schools during the day.  They openly welcome volunteers from all around the globe to complement their own English teachers.  I got to try my hand at some English classes, which were a lot of fun.  Of course, the usual barrage of questions from the students ensued, so I spent some time telling them about snow, and Canada and the four seasons, and how long it took to get from Canada to Cambodia, and….and…and...  Their English is amazingly good.  If only I could speak Khmer 1/10 as well as they speak English, I would be so happy!  But I struggle along, picking up a word here and there, and I often get by with sign language. 
We met up with Hahn around 4 pm, and he was pumped.  Although his morning had been pretty routine treating coughs and colds, the afternoon had been fascinating.  He was full of stories about what he’d seen at the clinic…everything from pellagra, to malaria, to congestive heart failure.  And despite the fact that  I’d originally dreamed of assisting him at the health clinic, it doesn’t look like this will become a reality, because there is sufficient staffing with two doctors now plus the trained assistant.   I also  don’t feel there’s a ‘fit’ for me teaching English at the school, because classes are in the evening.  Gordon will likely be working with some construction project during the day, and it’s important for us to have some of our time together.
So now what?  There’s still lots of opportunity at the orphanage.  I can teach English there, or maybe sewing.  We’ll see.  There are probably plenty of projects there for Gordon.  I know there was mention of building some shelving for the dormitories.  We still haven’t visited Honour Village either.
One thing we can count on in Cambodia….there is always a need for us somewhere….So hang onto your hats…. It’s gonna be a fun ride!

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