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Free Clinic in Cambodia: Medicine without Borders

TIMA members from Cambodia, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Vietnam teamed up to hold the first large-scale free clinic in Kampong Chhnang, Cambodia, fully embodying the spirit of Great Love in practising “Medicine without Borders”.

YL KL20180317 cgx01 088The first large-scale Tzu Chi free clinic held in Kg Chhnang, Cambodia, provided a wide variety of medical services from various specialties. (Photo by Chen Guo Xiong)

From 16th to 18th March 2018, TIMA (Tzu Chi International Medical Association) members from Cambodia, together with members from Taiwan, Singapore*, Malaysia, and Vietnam, held the first large-scale Tzu Chi free clinic in Kampong Chhnang Province of Cambodia, at its local Kg Tralach Referral Hospital. The 3-day clinic, which provided some 3,486 treatments and consultations to needy local residents, included various medical specialties, such as Surgery, Internal Medicine, Gynecology, Dentistry, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Optometry.

90% of the residents in Kampong Tralach depend on farming for their livelihood, the majority of whom are either Buddhist or Muslim by faith. When the local inhabitants fall ill, most of them will go to the village clinic to seek treatment, and will only go to the hospital if their conditions worsen.

As this is Tzu Chi’s first large-scale free clinic in Kg Chhnang Province, Cambodian Tzu Chi volunteers started planning and advocating for the event at the end of February, with the assistance of the county chief and the head of Kg Tralach Referral Hospital. They even invited the teachers and students of a local Chinese school, Qi Hua Public School (which was built with the aid of Tzu Chi), and other volunteer groups to assist with their work.

*Note: In the spirit of “Great Love Without Borders”, the volunteer team from Tzu Chi Merit Organization (Singapore) utilised their personal leave from work and participated in this humanitarian mission at their own expense. 

Transmitting the Spirit of Great Love

Early on the morning of 17th March, with slightly over an hour before the commencement of the free clinic, many residents had already arrived onsite. As it was starting to get crowded, Tzu Chi volunteers guided the people into orderly queues, and then arranged for them to proceed to different medical specialties.

CM20180317 MEA CYL 096Even though it is very crowded at the free clinic site, the residents wait in an orderly manner and listen carefully to the instructions given by Tzu Chi volunteers. (Photo by Chai Yu Leong)

“Dear folks, we are very grateful to the volunteer medical team from Tzu Chi in transmitting their love to the people of Kg Chhnang, enabling us to see that great love exists, regardless of religion or race,” said the head of the local health bureau, Choun Sokhorn, in his opening speech. He added that he hoped Tzu Chi would come every year to Kg Chhnang, to provide medical services to the locals.

CM20180317 MEA CYL 230A team of TIMA’s volunteer doctors presenting a heartwarming Tzu Chi sign language song to the local residents. (Photo by Chai Yu Leong)

Qi Hua Public School is a local Chinese school that is located about 10km from the free clinic site. In 1996, Tzu Chi helped to construct a building in the school, and thus had established close ties with the school’s management. The principal of the school, who graduated just after the new building was constructed, led a team of 29 students and teachers who were fluent in Mandarin and Khmer, to serve as effective translators in this free clinic.

CM20180318 MEA HSY 011The principal of Qi Hua Public School led his team of students and teachers to assist with translation at the free clinic. (Photo by Ng Shey Ying)

While the patients were waiting for their turn to see a doctor, Taiwanese volunteer You Mei Yun introduced Tzu Chi to them through lively songs and fun games, and also advocated the concept of environmental protection, enabling the locals to learn the importance of protecting the environment in a relaxed and informal atmosphere.

You said that as Cambodia’s environmental awareness was still in its infancy, it was easier to rouse their interest with the use of concrete items from daily life in her explanations. In particular, she highlighted the widespread prevalence of discarded plastic bags, which could be seen everywhere, and hoped that in encouraging the residents to switch to using reusable shopping bags, they could cut down on the use of plastic bags, to avoid creating more environmental pollution.

YL KL20180318 cgx01 042You Mei Yun (middle) serves as an environmental advocate at the free clinic, sharing important messages on environmental protection with the residents through the use of songs and games. (Photo by Chen Guo Xiong)

YL KL20180317 cgx01 079Products made from recyclables are on display to transmit the environment message that even “trash may be turned into gold” (i.e. something of value). (Photo by Chai Yu Leong)

Local resident, Kov Phaua, who used to have zero knowledge on environmental protection, commented, “I didn’t know that recycling could not only help to save the earth, but costs almost nothing. Even umbrellas that are broken and thick cardboard can be made into reusable shopping bags; it is truly amazing!”

Kov Phaua further said that the free clinic on this day not only treated her ailments, but also taught her about recycling. She pledged to be more prudent in using resources, while cutting down on the use of plastic bags.

In-Depth Treatment to Alleviate Pain

There was a Gynecology section in this free clinic, which was led by the vice superintendent of Taipei Tzu Chi Hospital, Dr Huang Si Cheng. Dr Huang’s warm and approachable nature was comforting to his patients, and he was well-liked by many of them. He said that although most of the treatments provided at the free clinic were temporary measures, the goal of the free clinic was not in the number of patients treated, but being able to identify potential cases that required further care and in-depth treatment, which he felt was truly meaningful.

Patient Chen Jin Shan, a welder by trade, had burned his hand and thigh in the previous week, after accidentally dropping his electric welding torch. At that point, he sought treatment in a local hospital; however, as he could not afford the charges for a hospital stay, he had no choice but to bear his painful injuries for over a week…  

Chen bundled his injured arm in a towel and was accompanied by his wife and mother to the free clinic. The doctor who was treating him discovered a gaping wound on his right wrist, a wound so deep that his bones could be seen, and fresh blood was still oozing from the exposed wound. Thus, he was given emergency referral to the surgical team for urgent treatment.

Dr Fong Poh Him, a veteran plastic surgeon from Singapore, quickly helped to disinfect Chen’s wounds. As the clinic was ill-equipped to handle such a medical emergency, Dr Fong asked Tzu Chi volunteers to send Chen to the hospital as he needed skin-grafting surgeries. The Cambodian volunteers immediately arranged for the patient to be hospitalised, and would provide continued care and assistance to him in time to come.

YL KL20180317 cgx01 131As the free clinic was not equipped to handle Chen’s treatment, Cambodian Tzu Chi volunteers quickly arranged for him to be hospitalised. (Photo by Chen Guo Xiong)

Extracting Mine Fragments

The Optometry section was helmed by Dr. Luo Kai Xin from Taiwan. He provided services, such as eye examination as well as prescription of glasses. On the final day of the free clinic, Dr. Luo accidentally discovered a red swollen area under the eyelid of a patient. Sensing that something was amiss, he quickly referred this patient to the surgical team for further treatment. Through the thorough examination of a Singaporean surgeon, a foreign object that seemed like a tumour was found under the swollen patch and required surgery to be removed.

CM20180317 MEA CYL 307The Optometry section not only provided eye examinations, but also prescriptive lens services to the patients. (Photo by Chai Yu Leong)

Through further probing, the team found out that this particular patient had accidentally ignited a landmine, a deadly legacy from the 1978 Civil War in Cambodia, while working in a field. His eye was injured by the sudden explosion of the landmine, and the foreign object could likely be a fragment from the exploded landmine.

He further said that he had once sought treatment after the accident, but due to the close proximity of the fragment to his eye, the doctor had warned that any surgery might affect his vision. Consequently, he had been afraid to seek surgery for his eye. Yet, the foreign object embedded in his eye for over 30 years had been gradually affecting his vision…

“Fortunately, Tzu Chi is holding this free clinic here!” he exclaimed happily. He had mustered his courage to seek treatment for his eye at the free clinic, and the fragment was finally removed after over half an hour of surgery.

“I am really grateful to Tzu Chi’s volunteer doctors from various countries, thank you so much!” The patient expressed his heartfelt appreciation for the skills and benevolence of the doctors, who had removed the object that had troubled him for many years.   

Tapping on Each Other’s Experiences and Knowledge

On the morning of 17th March, a 63-strong TIMA team and volunteers arrived at Tralach Primary School, which was about 10km away from the free clinic site, and took part in the free clinic organised by the Techo Voluntary Youth Doctor Association (TYDA). The members also had an exchange of technical skills and humanistic medical practices. 

CM20180317 MEA FGQ 040The vice superintendent of Taipei Tzu Chi Hospital, Dr. Huang Si Cheng (second from right), took part in the free clinic organised by the TYDA, and gifted the local medical team a box of liquid nutrition and an electric surgical knife on behalf of Tzu Chi. (Photo by Fong Kwai Kin)

One of the local dental undergraduates shared that the Taiwanese TIMA doctors were not only technically proficient, but what really moved him was their warm attitude towards patients. The doctor whom he had great admiration for was Dr. Qiu Hong Ji from Taiwan. Even though Dr. Qiu was much older than himself, yet he still made the effort to join the free clinic. And it was such dedication that inspired the student to want to do more to help the needy and sick.

A woman came to the clinic with a tumour that had troubled her for the past five years. When Dr. Fong was operating on her, he discovered a few more tumours, and proceeded to remove all of them at one go. He removed a total of four tumors from the woman. The TYDA doctors, who were observing close by, gained much from watching a medical expert at work.

On 18th March, a group of young TYDA doctors came to take part in the Tzu Chi free clinic, and even helped with translation work. TYDA’s Dr. Wu Han Chuan is a specialist in pulmonary medicine, and was attached to Tzu Chi’s hospital in Hualien for a 3-month internship in 2017. The young doctor was especially elated to meet the doctors from Tzu Chi again.

CM20180318 MEA HSY 097

Dr. Wu helped with translation in the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) section and was greatly impressed by what he had learned and observed there. He expressed his hope to apply the skills and humanitarian spirit he had learned in Taiwan in Cambodia, to become a competent and humane doctor, and to work hard to contribute to medical care in Cambodia.

At the close of the event, the person in charge of Tzu Chi Cambodia, Xie Ming Xun, said, “Next year, we will invite more Cambodian doctors to join the free clinic and to learn from the Tzu Chi doctors from overseas. Cambodia will surely stand on its own one day!”

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