“I had a stressful dream last night. A long queue of children was waiting for me to direct them to different medical stations,” Joey, a recent Canadian graduate, expressed himself in the sharing session on the last day of the medical aid in Cambodia. As a non-medical volunteer in the group, I could not agree more about the psychological, physical, and emotional stress building up over the 7 day volunteer work with the medical aid team. However, such labor has planted an irreplaceable memory and a valuable lesson for humanity deep down and in.
As a frequent traveler for business trips, the preparation for the trip to Cambodia with the medical aid team was unexpectedly challenging to manage. Each volunteer was asked to only use 10 kg for their luggage allowance. The rest of the 20 kg could then be used as allowance for the medical aid team to bring medical equipment, medicines and other donations to Cambodia. Hence, one by one, I took things out from the overweight luggage and left only 2 T-shirts, 2 pants, a pair of sandals, and some personal items in the luggage. Laptop was out of the question. Had my luggage been so emptied before?! Indeed, all those belongings were all I needed for the 7 day trip in Cambodia.
On the first day at the campsite, the volunteers were assigned with different tasks to assist the medical aid team. I was helping with the measuring of the body temperature and blood pressure of the villagers with a few other volunteers at the blood pressure measuring station. The task itself was not difficult but the managing of the long queue and controlling of the flow of the villagers while attempting to read off the measurement on the thermometer and the blood pressure monitor were somehow mentally and physical demanding.
Every now and then, my partner at the station, Fang Hsin and I would come across some elderly villagers with systolic blood pressure reading reaching the numbers between 140~180 mmHg. We would look at each other with concerns and wonder at the same time if we had read off the measurement correctly. Sensing the unusual expression on our faces, the elderlies became a little unease. And, we know the next time that instead of showing the concerns bluntly on our faces, there was another choice of showing them more assurance by helping them rolling up the sleeve of another arm for a re-measurement of the blood pressure after a 10 to 15 minutes break to lessen their anxieties.
With the children, we would need to record their body weight on the medical recordation sheet for the medical team’s reference in prescribing the right dosage. The weight measuring was a little battle. Some children showed unwillingness to let go the toothcare kit gift in their hands while some others would not fully step on the weighing machine for precise measurements and the big challenge was to measure the weights of young children who were still in the arms of the parents. My partner at the station came up with the idea of weighing the parent with the kid first and then just the parents. The weight difference would be the weight of the young child. A brilliant mathematical approach for problem solving. Little did we know, the biggest challenge was to hold the children in our arms without making them burst into tears as they left the familiar arms of the parents and now in the arms of the strangers.
There were times when the villagers were trying to communicate their illness at our station, and we could only respond with our body language by showing them it was the next few stations where they could be diagnosed. As other volunteers and I became more familiarized with the work, we used the breaks in between to pick up some easy vocabulary in Khmer to say hello (suostei) to the villagers and to ask the ages (ayou) for the medical sheet recordation. Whenever we tried those phrases, the villagers always broke into big smiles in return. We wish if only we could pick up a few more phrases in Khmer.
When the villagers moved to the next few stations for diagnosis, it became a psychological battle for the medical teams as to what questions and how many questions to ask in order to get the most out of each diagnose with the limited time given for the one time medical aid visit for the villagers. On the other hand, the villagers would need to trust the strangers who were not just strangers but “foreign” strangers in answering some personal questions for proper diagnosis. “It is a changing perspective of the doctor-patient relationship because of the scarcity of the medical institution and supplies in this village,” expressed by Dr. Tan from the MacKay Memorial Hospital.
At the campsite, the dental station was the physical battlefield. The dentists only had basic dental equipment to work with for tooth extraction, cleaning, and tooth decay treatment. As the dental chairs were also not affordable and only flat benches were available, the dentists had to compensate the treatment method by bending their backs the whole time for oral examination and some treatments were done by standing. By the end of the day, when the dental team walked out or sometimes staggered out of the station, one could feel the heaviness in their tired bodies but there were no words of complaint but satisfaction on their faces.
Out of all treatments, giving teeth treatment to children was the trickiest task. It was difficult to get the children to open their mouth and keep it open for treatment the first place. If one started crying, the rest in queue was affected with perhaps thousands of imaginations in their minds. The dentist, Dr. Liu, had turned the dental battlefield into a cartoon land with a witty mind. Using a plastic glove, Dr. Liu blew a big round rabbit face balloon for the children to hold in their arms when they lay flat on the bench for treatment. Magically, the children were paying so much attention not to burst the rabbit balloon that their fear for dental treatment and uncontrollable arm movements were much lessen. The warmth and creativity of such quick act had won the hearts of everyone.
On the third day of the medical aid, a trip was to be made to a local school in the inner part of the village. The road condition was hazardous and only trucks could drive through. Sitting on the wooden planks at the back of the trucks, the ride was bumpy. The endless big and small broken holes on the muddy road were quite a sight that we perhaps forgot how bumpy the ride was and simply thinking of only if we could safely reach the destination. By the end of the day, the two-hour ride back to the campsite was not easier as the rain started pouring for almost an hour throughout the way. Everyone was drenched and cold. Fortunately, no one was sick the next day.
The truck ride reminded me of a documentary, “On the way to school” by Pascal Plisson. Yes, too often we forget how lucky we are. The two-hour truck ride seemed trivial comparing to the everyday travel of the villagers and the continuous devotion of the colleagues of the Formosa Budding Hope Association in structuring network and programs to help the locals to self-support with trained skills or technology.
There is still a long way and tremendous work to reach the final goals. I am very glad I had come for this volunteering opportunity and helped in painting a little spot with everyone else on this trip for the greater vision for humanity.
Lining up at the airline service counter, the rooms in the luggage was emptied for the warm smiles of the villagers, the extraordinary hearts and creativity of the medical team, the trust and humanity that are unbounded and unmeasurable by the electronic scales.
The unbounded journey continues.